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Voices / Viewpoint

Landlords, what do you want to invest in?

A proposal to limit up-front rental costs gives young people a better shot at living in Brattleboro. Opposition to that measure does not reflect an emotional or even realistic investment in a community whose vibrancy and future depends on the work of the very people who need housing to be affordable.

Brandie Starr is in her fourth term on the Brattleboro Selectboard. She is the mother of two young children and a local tenant.

Brattleboro

Dear Brattleboro,

It has certainly been a year of change, transformation, and request for reform — definitely at the national and state level, as well as right here.

Those in our community who have not felt supported or even safe have come together and reached out to those who hold power in our town to make their voices heard, to advocate for and aspire to be a part of real, holistic change in the place we all love and call home.

That seems to me to be a reasonable, and important, request from our very own community members who live here and work here, and yet have not felt supported, helped, or sometimes even counted.

Vermont has a long history of being a tourist destination. As a born-and-raised Vermonter who grew up in a trailer on the backside of Okemo Mountain, I know the dichotomy well, the need for tourist dollars, the ultimate gentrification of the towns that seek to gain those dollars, and the lives of those who have always lived here, people who end up doing the work that serves the local upper- and upper-middle class, as well as the influx of tourists during the high seasons.

The feeling of disconnect between those locals and the communities in which they reside is palpable, and it has been consistent throughout my life here.

* * *

Brattleboro is a deeply passionate and vibrant community, made whole and full by those who contribute via art, theater, music, writing, photography, food... the list goes on.

There is also a deeply impoverished segment of our community. Many are generationally poor. Others reside in those very categories that make our town special, adding in the service and hospitality industry.

There is also a more affluent segment of our community. The upper-middle- and upper-class community members in our town love living in this vibrant and artsy town, and they show that love each time they attend wonderful events at Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, the Latchis Theatre, New England Youth Theatre, and so many other venues. They are generous benefactors at many events that support our important local nonprofits. This relationship is symbiotic. Holistic. And good.

It is no secret that it is expensive to live in Brattleboro. The services we enjoy cost money. Bringing old infrastructure up to date so the town can continue to thrive costs money, as do services like road plowing, sidewalk plowing, trash removal, general repairs...the list goes on, particularly in a town that wants to be considered “in good shape,” not only for its residents, but also for those who visit us.

The population of Vermont, and definitely Windham County, is aging. To keep a community vibrant, we need a healthy mix of people of all ages to help keep our local economy and general community energy growing and moving.

We have all seen the towns that stagnate, with their empty downtown buildings, the homes for sale with no prospect for buyers, and a general sense of done-ness. This does not happen by accident. It is sadly often the result of poor planning, of fear of innovating. It is a stuck-ness in the structures that were, that no longer serve.

None of us wants that for Brattleboro.

* * *

Affordability in our housing market means different things to different people. Some see it as “low-income housing” and “public housing.” Some see it as more housing for the lower middle class and the middle class.

Both are right, and both are needed.

To be a thriving, holistic community, we first need to be honest about not just who we wish we were, but who we actually are. This is brave work, and it requires real change and adaptation, so that the community we build has a foundation rooted in strength and integrity.

We need to accept and embrace all the members of our town. We need to remember that we are only as strong as our weakest link — and right now, we have a weak link, friends.

We have a break point that allows some to go without adequate housing, that causes others to move elsewhere, and that even leaves many unhoused. Those are the raw spots, the glaring flaws that cannot be hidden. Those are the marks on which we will ultimately be judged.

The Tenants Union of Brattleboro recently brought forth a proposal, requesting that the town limit move-in costs to two months’ rent, rather than three (first, last, and security deposit).

This policy is already the way in Burlington, in New Hampshire, and in New York. This allows not only young folks and families to have a better shot at living here, but it also reduces the move-in costs paid by grant programs aimed at those with the least income in our community.

In these remarkable times, we are all challenged to be a part of history. We are all asked to be — well...remarkable. To grow, and learn. Evolve or die.

* * *

When I receive messages or hear comments from local property owners about how rents will rise or restrictions will tighten without that third month of rent being collected up front, I am saddened.

While there is obvious financial investment in Brattleboro via real estate, those kinds of comments do not reflect an emotional or even realistic investment in the community.

Frankly, this is not an affluent community. To make those kinds of statements risks showing a disconnect between owned physical property here, and your neighbors who need housing.

Housing is an essential right, and you, property owners, have chosen to provide it. It is done on your backs, because you own the housing your neighbors need.

Real estate is an investment. Sometimes we lose money; sometimes we gain. When I was in the stock market, my advisor would say, “It’s the long game. You will have gains and losses. If you do not have that appetite for risk, the investment world is not the place for you.”

I am going to go further than that. I am going to ask, “Landlords, what do you want to invest in?”

Are you investing strictly in the property, with the highest cash value? Or are you invested in the community in Brattleboro?

Because to invest in Brattleboro is to invest in every shop owner, server, hospitality worker, artist, musician, actor, teacher, and family.

When you are out in your favorite restaurant or shop, are you confident that your server, bartender, or host is safely and adequately housed? Are you confident that they are able to thrive in Brattleboro as you are?

Are you building a building, or part of building a town? A community of humans symbiotically working to create lives and livelihoods that will transform in growth and beauty for this town?

Where do your allegiances lie?

At the end of the day, do your investments and actions align with your values and support this community?

Remember, we are only as strong as our weakest link. And our weakest link is never humans; it is almost always a misuse or under-use of power and privilege to lift our neighbors together.

* * *

Brattleboro, we are in a moment of history. Changes happen almost while we sleep these days.

Don’t turn your back on your communities. Don’t confuse a low appetite for risk as a reason to ask more of your neighbors than they can give.

Come be part of building a strong, healthy community that actually serves all of those who live here. Be part of the movement toward a sustainable town.

Because it will happen either way. It is time, and I am ready, as are hundreds of others.

Will you join in to stabilize and sustain the foundation of this town? I hope your answer is yes.

To close, here is a quote from Maliq Matthew that has been at the end of my email signature for going on three years: “Well-intentioned people often perpetuate systems of inequality without malice, but with full effect.”

Seriously, and lovingly,

Brandie E. Starr.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #579 (Wednesday, September 16, 2020). This story appeared on page C1.

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