Island housing experts will examine landlord, tenant rights

The sometimes challenging landlord-tenant relationship will be the subject of a forum sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program.

This six-unit apartment building at Village Court on State Road in Vineyard Haven is owned by the Island Housing Trust. — Photo IHT

Finding year-round or seasonal housing on Martha’s Vineyard has never been more challenging. With inventory shrinking and rental rates rising, the stress on landlords and tenants can sometimes create misunderstandings that may lead to legal action.

Anne Mayhew, principal broker at Sandpiper Rentals, will join David Vigneault, executive director of the Dukes County Housing Authority; Matt Poole, Edgartown board of health agent; and Erik Hammarlund, a real estate attorney, at the Vineyard Haven library for a community event, “Landlords and Tenants: Rights, Responsibilities and Challenges,” on Tuesday, May 3, at 7 pm. The presentation is sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Mediation Program.

With rising real estate prices, fewer and fewer homeowners are deciding to rent their homes to year-round tenants, explained Anne Mayhew, principal broker at Sandpiper Realty.

“There used to be a lot of investment properties; now it’s hard to find that kind of property,” Ms. Mayhew said. “The sale price is so high to purchase a home that typically the owners want to use it.”

Ms. Mayhew said there is a longtime tradition where year-round homeowners leave their property in the summer, allowing them to rent it and pocket the extra cash, using it to maintain their property or to pay their mortgage off early.

“I’m one of them,” she said. “My husband has been moving out of his house for the summer since he was 5 years old. We’re fortunate to have a little unheated cottage to go to, and we rent the main house.” Ms. Mayhew said she knows of other families who use the summer to travel and rent their homes to vacationers, and other families who have used the summer rental profits to help pay college tuition for their children.

The summer rush actually begins in January, Ms. Mayhew said, as soon as the Steamship Authority begins accepting reservations for the new year. “Do I have any year-round rentals available now? No.”

With summer closing in, winter renters are vying for a place to stay this summer, along with all those vacationers. And the cost can be exorbitant.

David Vigneault is familiar with the myriad of housing issues facing Islanders. He said that sales of vacation homes, second homes, and retirement homes are booming, and the price of summer rentals has gone up as people have more income to spend.

“It’s the golden goose,” he said. “These people are our service economy. What’s good news is that we’re a beautiful Island in close proximity to areas where the wealthy reside, but it is directly related to the year-round housing problem.”

He said the Island has a “structural defect” when it comes to housing.

“The Island needs pool maintenance staff, ice cream scoopers, caretakers, and other workers — the very people who do these jobs and those on low and fixed incomes, senior citizens, and nowadays, two- or three-income families, these are people needed and wanted on the Island, and they are not able to have a place to live or to move into,” Mr. Vigneault said.

And, he said, help wanted signs seen in July, as was the case last summer, are a bad indication that the golden goose is in danger of being on life support: “You can’t have a seasonal economy when you don’t have anyone to work.”

He said information sessions like the one planned at the Vineyard Haven library are helpful to tenants and landlords alike: “It helps lessen the tension and ensure that people on both sides have a better experience.”

Besides realtors and newspaper advertisements, landlords now go directly to prospective tenants by using the Internet to find people to rent their property, seasonally or year-round. That has added to the complexity of the issue, according to Matt Poole.

“People will call the Board of Health disappointed that they showed up on Martha’s Vineyard for vacation and there are spiders on the property, there are pills in the sheets, rust stains in the tub,” Mr. Poole said. “This doesn’t warrant the Board of Health getting involved, but this is what happens when you rent from an owner directly versus a rental site.”

But that’s just one scenario. His Edgartown office, which is made up of himself and an assistant, also fields calls when landlords have not kept the premises safe, and calls about tenants who have neglected — or trashed — the landlord’s property.

With a book of state regulations that measures three-eighths of an inch thick, Mr. Poole admits that it’s difficult to be in 100 percent compliance with every requirement. And, he explained, sometimes the regulations can be used to either a tenant’s or a landlord’s advantage.

“By the end of winter, some tenants fall behind on the rent and use the regulations to get leverage with the landlord. It doesn’t make any difference that the backstory is a landlord-tenant issue; it doesn’t change how the code is administered,” Mr. Poole said. Tenants have the responsibility to pay rent on time, and landlords have to meet the minimum standards determined by the state, he said.

“My suggestion would be not to make the board of health your first call; talk to your landlord first,” Mr. Poole said. “It’s only fair that the landlord be given the opportunity to fix something, and failure to do so or an unsatisfactory response can support them [tenants] if they carry it to the board of health.”

The Island rental market is different from other communities, he explained. The economy is driven by the seasons, lending to a certain amount of desperation when it comes to housing. Here there are many basement apartments and smaller buildings that were not necessarily meant for habitation.

“Lots of people live in these places because it’s better than no housing at all,” he said.

The presentation on Tuesday will delve into the rights of both tenants and landlords, and the challenges of renting in a seasonal resort environment. For more information, call the Vineyard Haven library at 508-696-4211.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Anne Mayhew as the principal broker at Sandpiper Realty. She is the principal broker at Sandpiper Rentals.