Frustration mounts for Brattleboro landlords
Editor's Note: This is the first in a two-part series.
BRATTLEBORO — Can the town do more to force landlords with dilapidated or "nuisance" properties to clean up their apartment buildings?
"A private nuisance is something we can't touch," said Brian Bannon, Brattleboro's Zoning Administrator.
Bannon and Leonard "Lennie" Howard, assistant fire chief and Brattleboro's health officer, focus on health and life safety issues. Brattleboro's zoning ordinance doesn't give them the authority to take enforcement actions against owners of properties that are generally run down but not dangerous or that might have a reputation for criminal activity, such as the dealing of drugs out of an apartment.
Springfield and Bellows Falls have ordinances to give the zoning administrators more power when it comes to dealing with nuisance properties and Rockingham is considering adopting the ordinance the village has had since 1990.
"We don't have an overarching nuisance ordinance," said Town Manager Peter Elwell. "We have a health ordinance, a solid waste ordinance and the new rental housing ordinance ... that are subject-specific."
Town enacts new inspection program
The town estimates there are about 3,020 rental units in the community. Elwell said at a recent Select Board meeting that a lot of properties are in good condition while some have minor violations, but there are "some situations where some landlords have not taken proper care of their facilities."
The new ordinance allows Howard and Bannon to inspect each unit in town every four years at a charge to property owners of $75 per unit. The hope is the new ordinance will ensure apartments will be safer, healthier and less prone to blight.
More often than not town officials are responding to a building where the garbage is not being stored properly prior to pickup.
"We are looking for anything that could cause a potential health problem," said Bannon. "It could be a strong odor, it could be torn garbage bags or it could be vermin."
In Brattleboro, buildings with five or more units need a dumpster supplied by the landlord. But in four units or less, trash is the responsibility of the tenants.
"Health code requires it to be in a sealed container while it's waiting to be picked up by the hauler," said Howard. Brattleboro contracts with Triple T for garbage disposal, but it has to be in special bags that residents purchase. Residents also have to recycle.
"Tenants have a responsibility to maintain their units in good shape and take the garbage out regularly," said Bannon. "If the tenant fails to do so, the landlord has to make sure the property is well maintained. The landlord has a responsibility to make sure the garbage is collected and taken away regularly."
If the problem is not resolved, said Bannon, the town is more likely to take action against a landlord than a tenant. "In most cases, they're not keeping up with the garbage because they can't afford the bags. If they can't afford the bags, it's futile to ticket them."
Bannon also has the authority to ticket landlords who store debris or other eyesores that are visible from the street.
"We always give landlords the chance to voluntarily comply," said Bannon, who lives in the Central Street neighborhood. "If they still don't comply, then we ticket. For some of the more problematic issues it's $250 per violation. We can charge that per day if it's not fixed. I did threaten to do that a couple of weeks ago where the landlord had not been responsive."
Elwell said the town has to go through several steps to force a landlord to comply with local ordinances. Those steps include informing owners of violations, documenting the failure to correct those violations, encouraging the owners to follow up with the requested corrective action, documenting failure to comply again, citing the owner with a warning that fines will commence if the corrective action is not taken within a certain period of time, which can vary from violation to violation, documenting failure to comply again, and then imposing fines to ensure compliance.
"Only in very rare cases do we make it all the way to the fining stage and that can lead to litigation," said Elwell. "However, there are certain owners and certain properties where we have to repeat this multi-step process over and over again. In those situations, compliance is achieved, often at the final stage before the imposition of fines, but a few months later a new violation occurs and the process starts all over again. Those situations can be very frustrating for neighbors and people sometimes think that the town isn't doing anything about such properties."
"I share that dissatisfaction," said Bannon, who lives in the troubled neighborhood. "I am friendly with a lot of my neighbors and I hear directly from them."
'More leadership is needed'
Sally Fegley, who launched Windham Property Management in 2016 with her husband, Tom, said they've been working with the town for about a year on what they call "derelict" properties, or properties they consider eyesores where criminal activity might be taking place.
"Properties with garbage all around them and drugs being dealt from inside," said Sally Fegley. "And there is antisocial behavior being displayed by the tenants."
Windham Property Management is a private company that works with landlords to find tenants and care for their properties.
Angela Zaikowski, the director of the Vermont Landlords Association, said landlords across the state are dealing with the same issues that landlords in Brattleboro are dealing with.
"When just dealing with your own properties the tools are limited," she said. "It gets more complicated when landlords are dealing with somebody else's property. If a property next to mine is in really rough shape, as a private citizen I don't have tools to force someone to make improvements unless that property is impacting my property in a dangerous way, such as health."
"We've met with the police department and we've met with Peter Elwell," said Sally Fegley. "They are very polite and they are very accommodating, but nothing has changed since April of 2018. I've concluded they are incapable of dealing with what's going on. They don't have the resources or the law on their side. Maybe the laws should be changed to give them more capacity to deal with these problems. This is dragging down the entire town. More leadership is needed."
"Something needs to change to give the town the ability to do more," said Kate O'Connor, a former chairwoman of the Brattleboro Select Board and the current executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce. O'Connor has had her own experiences with problem properties in her neighborhood.
A temporary fix to drug dealing
In late February, the Vermont Drug Task Force conducted a pre-dawn raid at 33 Oak St., and arrested a number of people for drug dealing. O'Connor lives one house over from 33 Oak and said since the arrests, drug dealing has resumed in the building.
"We have been appreciative of what the town had done for us," said O'Connor, who said she was speaking as a resident of Brattleboro and not the director of the Chamber. She said she believes the Oak Street neighborhood received a more satisfactory response from the town and law enforcement because "We just never let up. We made it our mission. And it takes over your life. It's all consuming. It shouldn't be that way."
She said in her case, the neighbors had the benefit of having a landlord who lives in Brattleboro, while other problem properties are owned by people who rarely come to town.
About 45 days after the raid on Oak Street, law enforcement raided 48-50 Central St. As a result of that operation, 16 people were arrested on various charges and many of them are being held pending resolution of their cases. And while nearby property owners are glad to see law enforcement taking action, it's only a temporary fix.
"It goes right back to the same thing," said Iedje Hornsby, who owns nine buildings in Brattleboro, including one on Thomas Street, next door to 48-50 Central St.
"Drug dealers switch from neighborhood to neighborhood," said Susan Bellville, who owns 38 Central Street, across the road from 48-50. "There's an active house on Pine Street and one on Washington Street right now."
"This is how a cancer spreads throughout the community," said Tom Fegley. "A drug addict can't afford rent and allows a drug dealer to use their apartment as a retail hub. When police catch up, they find another addict and move into that apartment."
Bellville said she understands it takes time to build a solid case that will keep a drug dealer off the streets, but it's frustrating for her and other landlords.
"The police department and its state and federal partners often have to work for months to develop probable cause for taking meaningful and lasting law enforcement action," acknowledged Elwell. "An arrest for a single sale of drugs does not interrupt the illegal drug trafficking. Well-developed cases that can prove the trafficking part and not just the single sale part take time."
"We are working with various state and federal agencies on a daily basis in addressing illicit drug activity," said Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald. "Our work is conducted behind the scenes and for obvious reasons, our tactics and progress are not publicized. This can be very frustrating to the general public as they do not see us working on their complaints and the complaints are not immediately resolved. This process may take many months to complete and there is no guarantee that once arrested, the defendant will be incarcerated while waiting for their trial date. This can also be very frustrating for the community."
Bellville rents primarily to people on probation and parole.
"Ninety-eight percent of them are drug addicts," she said. Bellville believes in giving people a chance they can prove they can shake their addiction and reintegrate into society, but it's hard when there is drug dealing and other criminal activity going on nearby.
"48-50, being an out-in-the-open drug dealing property has caused a lot of stress to my tenants and puts them at risk of re-offending," said Bellville. "I have to run a tight ship. If I don't stay on top of it, it gets out of control real quickly. That's what happened with one of my buildings on Canal Street."
Right after the raid on 48-50, she said, "One of my tenants decided to pick up the ball and run with, started dealing drugs out of my building. Eventually he was forced back into treatment and the drug dealing stopped."
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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