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'Disorderly house' bylaw in the works

November 02, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — When they went looking for models of how to rein in neglectful landlords, Town Manager Chris Clark and Police Chief Dan Charette didn't find much of a trail to follow.

"We've checked and nobody's done anything quite this specific," Charette said, speaking to Monday's General Government meeting.

They're trying to craft a new bylaw under which Southbridge can fine landlords if police have to respond to their properties frequently. In some cases, the police logs show officers visit the same buildings, even the same apartments, several times a week for arguments, fights, arrests and other incidents, often reported by neighbors.

Without bylaws to copy, they plan to fall back on state law. The relevant one seems to be Chapter 272, section 53, which lumps "keepers of noisy and disorderly houses" with people committing indecent exposure and lewd acts into a group that can be jailed up to 6 months and/or fined up to $200. An earlier law, repealed in 1953 but still cited in Chapter 277's way of phrasing indictments, applied to people who "keep and maintain a certain and common, noisy, ill-governed and disorderly house, resorted to for the purpose of drinking, quarrelling, making great noises, and breaking and disturbing the peace, to the common nuisance of all the people."

They noted they're not yet ready to present the text of such a bylaw, but took the meeting's suggestions as grist for the mill. The plan in the works calls for giving those landlords a couple of warnings before fining them up to $300. If landlords fail to pay within 21 days, they can be arrested and brought to court — but the law only allows it by daylight, not an overnight jail stay.

The difference in fines wasn't clear late Monday night, but might refer to a different state law's limit.

"More and more, we've had situations with absentee landlords," Charette said. Frequently, a long-time tenant sees their apartment house change owners, and, shortly afterward, new tenants "move in next door and make their lives hell," he said.

The course of the committee's discussion seemed to point toward a tiered fine system starting at $50, with Councilor Conrad Vandal observing, "They're not going to take many $100s before they [act]."

He also suggested they start by "zapping the person [tenant] who did the wrongdoing first, … and give the landlord a warning — 'Next time, we're going after you.'"

See Wednesday's Southbridge Evening News for complete coverage of community news.

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