BRATTLEBORO — A controversial proposal to cap fees for rental housing units is returning for consideration.
“I think we’re in a moment where two people feel strongly, two other people feel strongly, there’s a person who has needed some time and some additional information to feel sure of the way forward, and tonight has said, ‘I’d like to see this come back,’” Town Manager Peter Elwell said during the Select Board meeting held remotely Tuesday, advising that the matter be included on an upcoming agenda.
An ordinance would limit how much landlords can initially charge a tenant to first month’s rent and a security deposit not to exceed the same amount. Landlords have spoken against the proposal and two board members worried it might drive away those wanting to invest in or build new rental units.
Planning Director Sue Fillion researched potential programs to protect landlords and tenants. She also spoke with members of the Tenants Union of Brattleboro, which proposed the ordinance, and the director of Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.
Insurance for landlords could protect their income stream and guarantee rent payment. Housing subsidies could be offered to tenants to go toward monthly rent.
“To fund either of these programs,” Fillion said, “we’d be looking at general revenues or property taxes or some sort of partnership, fundraising that could be done within the community, private foundation.”
Town Attorney Bob Fisher said he found Community Development Block Grant funds available to the town couldn’t be used for “income-type payments” such as food, clothing and housing costs including rent, mortgage or utilities.
“The common theme there is they don’t want to allow you to use those funds for things where the money is going to be gone, kind of expendable,” he said. “The eligible uses go to creating housing, the building of housing and those sorts of things. So it didn’t help for the program we’re speaking about.”
Wessel wondered if CDBG funds could be used for damage reimbursement, calling it “material to the rental.”
Fisher said he could check. He also will see if the town has to have one or two hearings or “readings” on the ordinance since the board already held one last month before deciding to research alternative ways to help with housing issues.
With that funding source appearing to be off limits, Select Board member Daniel Quipp said he wanted to bring the ordinance back to the table as it will improve the lives of tenants, although it may put some landlords in a riskier position. He apologized for creating uncertainty, as his vote had been seen as the tiebreaker that put a pause on the proposal so town staff could explore alternatives.
“I needed to wrestle with this stuff,” he said. “I have more information now. And how I feel about it is this will be better for the greater good of Brattleboro.”
A member of the tenants union told the board, “We think you have every reason to move forward on this proposal.”
In the meantime, other efforts are underway.
In September, the board approved an interim zoning bylaw with the aim of allowing more housing to become available. Fillion said the change in land use rules resulted in 13 new housing units that wouldn’t previously be able to get permitting.
“I think a lot of that has to do with the CARES funding that’s out there to help landlords build units,” she said of federal coronavirus relief money, estimating that the community usually gains about 10 new residential units each year. “We’re hoping those come online soon.”
The town is expected to hear back next month on the status of a municipal planning grant it is seeking to hire a consultant to look at housing needs. The Planning Commission also is looking at additional ways to support new housing stock in the community.