Snow Block vision becomes reality

A potential tenant gets a tour of an apartment in the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust's Snow Block building in downtown Brattleboro on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019.

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BRATTLEBORO — A proposal to amend the town charter to require "just-cause evictions" is getting responses from local groups that highlight the complicated nature of the issue. 

Groundworks Collaborative, which serves community members facing housing and food insecurity, isn't taking a position though its staff is very aware of harms that can come from evictions. Libby Bennett, director of development and communications at Groundworks Collaborative, said the group is sympathetic toward tenants and understands the challenges facing landlords.

"Our current housing crisis is highly complex, with supply and demand raising the stakes on how able each of us are to meet our basic needs," she said in statement to the Reformer. "In the current housing shortage and for years leading up to this point, in Brattleboro and throughout Vermont, it is often extremely difficult for a tenant (whether evicted for cause or no cause) to find another place to live with so much competition." 

Bennett said the community needs "more housing stock and units available to people at all income levels, without which the issue of supply and demand will continue to determine whether people can meet their basic needs."

The proposed charter amendment would protect tenants from eviction without “just cause,” such as a breach of a written rental agreement, violation of state laws regarding tenant obligations in rental agreements, non-payment of rent and a tenant’s failure to accept written, reasonable good faith renewal terms. It “excludes from ‘just cause’ the expiration of a rental agreement as sole grounds for termination of tenancy.”

Exempted from the proposal are owner-occupied duplexes and triplexes, accessory dwelling units (ADU), and sublets or rooms in owner-occupied homes because organizers didn't want to impede people from making ADUs or offering rooms in their homes. The proposal also calls for a 12 percent cap on rent increases, which supporters describe as very generous. If approved by Brattleboro voters, the charter amendment will need to be considered by the Vermont Legislature before enactment.

"No one wants to go through a formal eviction process," Elizabeth Bridgewater, executive director of Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, said in a statement to the Reformer. "We believe this is an opinion held by both residents and property owners/managers." 

Bridgewater said the housing trust already operates under "just cause" principals and works with residents to retain their homes wherever possible. Payment plans will be set up if a family has fallen behind, and residents will be linked to local resources or even moved to new places if it is deemed a more successful path forward. 

"There are instances, however, where someone is not suited for the space they’re in," Bridgewater said. "If for example, they are violent toward others, if they are trafficking in drugs or creating unsafe circumstances. In addition, despite our best efforts to help a resident access resources, sometimes rent continues to go unpaid, which is not sustainable." 

Bridgewater noted how in today’s market, renters find themselves in "an incredibly vulnerable position."

"If faced with eviction or if their lease is not renewed, there are very few options, which can result in tremendous instability for the person and their family," she said. "When a lease is terminated, due process in the court system allows for a third party to review the case and ensure that worse case scenarios of discrimination are not at play and that there is good reason for terminating the lease. However, due process takes several months and can be very expensive for the property owner and demoralizing for everyone involved."

A lengthy eviction process can prolong unsafe behavior and make it more difficult for landlords to ensure other residents in the building and in the neighborhood aren't in harm's way, according to the statement. 

Bridgewater suggested the potential of making the proposal "less polarizing."

"Can we expand the conversation to include common sense measures that protect all parties?" she said. "A well funded risk pool to help property owners mitigate the financial impact of due process is one such idea. Another is for the courts to fast track cases that are initiated due to unsafe or illegal activities that pose a threat to others." 

Bridgewater worries the proposal may result in private landlords taking less risk when vetting potential tenants as a way to diminish the likelihood of costly issues in the future. That in turn, she said, would limit options for renters in the community -- "an outcome nobody wants."

Property managers oppose just-cause eviction proposal

Brattleboro Housing Partnerships Executive Director Christine Hazzard said her group would like "fewer barriers to housing retention and more opportunities for sustainable housing for all people in our community." She noted BHP already functions under "just cause" rules. 

"BHP works very hard to house people who may not be able to find housing elsewhere; we see our neighborhoods as a place of first opportunity," she said in a statement to the Reformer, pointing to programs put on in collaboration with community partners to bring resources directly to residents. "We are fortunate to have a whole staff dedicated to keeping people housed."

Hazzard said most of the residents at BHP properties are "excellent renters who anyone would be fortunate to house. However, we have no choice but to move towards an eviction for cause if residents cause a threat or are violent towards their neighbors, sell drugs on our property or accumulate a large nonpayment debt."

Hazzard called the eviction process "expensive" and time consuming. And it might not result in a termination of the lease being granted, she said.

"This process can be traumatic and frustrating for other residents who feel unsafe in their neighborhoods," she said. 

Hazzard said her group has a long history of working with local housing providers in its Housing Choice Voucher Program, commonly referred to as the Section 8 program.

"Many of these are small private housing providers who work hard to house people within our payment standards," she said. "Hundreds of families are housed in our community with this subsidy, most with private housing providers."

Hazzard said housing providers have shared "concerns about no longer being able to take risks with tenants who may have a less-than-perfect rental history. They fear they would be unable to afford a lengthy eviction."

Currently, BHP has 25 people searching for residences in town through the voucher program. Hundreds are on the waiting list to get in the program. 

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"At a time when we need more collaboration and support for housing retention and when so many agencies feel overwhelmed with current demand, there must be a plan to support housing providers," Hazzard said. "This support could be monetary with risk fund resources and with additional landlord liaison and resident support."

Sue Graff, field services director at the Vermont Agency of Human Services for the Brattleboro and Springfield Districts, said the Housing Coalition of Southeast Vermont seeks to understand the housing challenges in the region and pursue strategies to address them, but will not be formulating a position since it's specific to Brattleboro and there's a process in place for the voters to provide input. 

Vermont Interfaith Action "not only supports Brattleboro’s just cause eviction, we are one of the core leaders of a coalition on housing policy that prioritizes JCE for the whole state," said VIA Executive Director Debbie Ingram.

Spoon Agave, chairman of the Windham County and Brattleboro committees of the Progressive Party, said both committees "strongly endorse" the proposal. He called the endorsement "firmly in tune with the party platform."

Ellen Schwartz of Vermont Workers' Center said her group supports the proposal. She helped get signatures for the petition and is talking with people about how the initiative will protect tenants from property owners who want to sell, upgrade or flip their properties for profits, and from repercussions if they exercise rights related to repairs, maintenance and speaking up publicly. 

"Just-cause eviction isn't going to solve all of our housing problems," she said. "It's just one piece. There's a lot more." 

Marta Gossage of Brattleboro, who submitted a petition to trigger the March 7 vote for Brattleboro residents to decide if they want to require just-cause evictions in town, and other supporters of the proposal have been meeting with affected residents. 

Damaris Mills, 73, of West Brattleboro, who lives at Westbrook Court Apartments on the Section 8 subsidy, found she didn't have the energy to participate in Black Lives Matter activism a few years ago but now she feels up to the fight for just-cause eviction after becoming involved with the group seeking to make the charter amendment.

Mills said she was among the residents whose leases would not be renewed at Westbrook. She was later told she could stay. She still feels strongly about wanting her friends in neighboring units to remain there. She said she was told she could stay because of advocacy from one of the Westbrook office employees, who said, "No, we can't kick out Ms. Demaris, because if it hadn't been for her, my son would have never learned how to read.'"

Rents in Westbrook apartments have been raised since an investment firm purchased the building in September 2021, Mills said. She described the majority of occupants being low income seniors.

"What's happening is against humanity," she said. "It seems like these corporations and all these people who want to make money, it's like they don't have any moral compass."

Mills plans to go the public hearings being held in the Select Board Meeting Room in the Municipal Center at 6:15 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3, and 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7. 

A local representative for the firm that owns Westbrook could not be immediately reached. The group plans to renovate units there and hopes to add 70 more in town. 

Gossage and others who organized the petition worked with Rights & Democracy Vermont (RAD), which launched similar initiatives in other communities. 

Brattleboro Common Sense Executive Director Kurt Daims said his group began drafting a proposal in 2020 based on information from someone involved in the tenants rights movement in San Francisco. After conferring with town staff, he said, the project came to a dead end then was revived when he asked RAD to join the effort, but RAD thought that BCS's plan for rent control and its Emergency Housing in RVs program were "too radical." 

Daims said BCS supports nine-tenths of the proposal before voters, which had been in his group's earlier plan, but RAD added a provision that makes all leases "binding on the landlords forever and not on the tenants."

"That's childish and outrageous and illegal," he said. 

BCS wants to oppose the current proposal and present the original version later, Daims said. He doesn't believe the Legislature will approve the amendment as proposed. 

Doran Hamm of the Tenants Union of Brattleboro said his group had started up in the depths of the pandemic and worked on the issue but is no longer as active. The tenants union supports the proposal, and Hamm helped get signatures and talked with people involved in local government about its importance. 

"Tenants will be like, 'We always wanted that,' but for the most part people didn't have the time or energy to fight for it," he said. "It's always the same thing: the ones who are advocating most for their rights are the people with the least money, the least time and the least energy." 

Hamm said the tenants union regularly received emails about no-cause evictions and they would send people to Vermont Legal Aid for support. 

"I think it's just really important to remember that still the majority of the law and the support is with landlords," he said. "This is just a tiny little step." 

If someone loses their apartment for any reason, Hamm said, they have little to no chance to finding another in Brattleboro. 

Gossage pointed to a report released Wednesday by the Biden White House supporting "just- or good-cause eviction protections" and adequate notice for tenants if a lease isn't going to be renewed.