NORTHAMPTON – During a meeting on May 19, the Northampton City Council officially approved the legislation that prohibits landlords from requiring tenants to pay for brokers fees.
The bill, known as a “home rule petition,” instead ask landlords to take care of any broker expenses that may sometimes fall on the tenant’s lap when they agree to a place for rent. The goal of this petition is to create less barriers to affordable housing, especially since many prospective renters are already charged with first and last month’s rent, as well as other security deposits.
According to Carmen Junno, the chair of the Northampton Housing Partnership, many of the tenants who accept an apartment through a rental agency, such as Rent Noho, are paying 60 to 75 percent of their first month’s rent to that rental agency.
The bill was proposed and recommended by Ward 5 City Councilor Alex Jarrett, Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore and Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra.
According to Jarrett, this proposed bill was developed based off a 2019 study spearheaded by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) in conjunction with the city’s housing partnership titled, “Unlocking Opportunity: An Assessment of Barriers to Fair Housing in Northampton.”
The study, which is over 100 pages, went into detail about a whole variety of factors that impede people from getting housing in Northampton, including costs, a lack of transportation, limited job opportunities and more.
The bill, however, does not dissuade tenants and brokers or rental agents from working together. Tenants may still have the option to hire an agent, if they so choose, according to Jarrett. “This is a good path forward,” said Jarrett. “It’s one of many paths I believe we need to take.
The City Council Committee on Community Resources conducted a public forum on April 25 to hear from tenants and landlords about their experiences renting in Northampton.
A resident told the committee that he just received a notice to vacate his apartment after finally receiving a salary-based job. Although he would love to stay in Northampton close to his family, he makes a little too much money to be eligible for a Section 8 voucher and told the committee that the broker’s fees were a major barrier for him.
“The moving cost of rent alone, with the additional broker’s fee, actually is more than a month’s worth of pay for me,” the resident said. “This would be a wonderful first step to making renting in Northampton more accessible, but it’s a first step. There’s a lot more to do.”
Many landlords at the meeting, meanwhile, threatened to apply the cost of hiring a broker to rents, so tenants would continue to pay this fee. Former City Councilor David Murphy argued against the bill, saying the numbers in the Unlocking Opportunity study were essentially “gobbledygook” because the study was conducted through an equity lens, and used statistics from both Hampshire County and Hampden County.
Despite the divisiveness between landlords and tenants, the bill ultimately passed unanimously among the City Council members and will now go back to the state for a hearing process before becoming official.
The council also approved the second reading for ranked choice voting, which would change the charter to eliminate the current system of voting for one candidate for each seat and replace it with ranked choice voting for multi-seat elections, like City Council, and single-seat elections, like for mayor, where voters would have the option to rank their preferred candidates. Under the ranked choice model, candidates would progressively be eliminated based on total votes until a winner is determined.
According to Ward 1 Councilor Stanley Moulton, the next steps will involve working with the state legislature and educating the public about the process of ranked-choice voting.
The council also approved legislation that authorizes Sciarra to transfer the land on 196 Cook Ave. to the custody of the Conservation Commission to add to the Fitzgerald Lake-Broad Brook Greenway for conservation, as well as to develop affordable housing and parking.
Originally, the land was supposed to be used for a new animal control facility, but after persistent backlash from abutting residents, the city decided to move the proposed facility to the campus of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School. The Trustees of Smith voted on April 26 to welcome this new facility.
According to Wayne Feiden, the city’s director of planning and sustainability, Northampton must complete due diligence to see how much affordable housing can be built on the site. “We did enough due diligence to know [the site] could house an animal control facility, which is basically the same footprint as two affordable units,” said Feiden. “But we haven’t done enough due diligence to know if we could do more.”
Currently, the city will work on the demolition of the old Moose Lodge on that property through state funding and request for proposals. According to Feiden, the city will be working with the abutting residents to figure out how much parking will be sufficient on the property.
Lastly, the council approved the restructuring of the Health Department, where it will now be called the “Health and Human Services Department (DHHS),” with current Health Director Merridith O’Leary officially becoming the commissioner of the domain.
Under the DHHS, the Department of Community Care would officially become a part of the Health and Human Services Department, and Implementation Director Sean Donovan will be a crucial figure in this department’s future as the city continues its pursuit of prioritizing mental health through a social service lens rather than through traditional police response. Michele Farry, the program manager for the regional Drug Addiction and Recovery Team, would serve as the deputy assistant commissioner.
“We are very committed to peer participatory processes, community voice, and making sure value everyone that’s going to be part of this process,” said Farry.
According to O’Leary, the Department of Community Care will have access to several resources while under the Health and Human Services branch and will benefit from partnering with the DHHS on developing a model to assist people with substance use disorder. Among other things, the Department of Community Care will have access to health professionals, as well as integral health information data.
“By working under the DHHS umbrella, the [Department of Community Care] will be able to understand the populations they are serving in a broader context of intersectional public health issues, historical context, [as well as] structural and systemic inequities,” said O’Leary.
According to Donovan, the Department of Community Care is looking to make sure their responders are well-adapted and trained in dealing with disputes in a non-aggressive, non-policing way. Donovan has also spent time at places like Manna Community Kitchen to connect with people and see what their needs are, and what their experiences have been like with first responders.
This administrative order will be discussed in more detail during a future meeting. The next City Council meeting is June 2.