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Brattleboro rent ordinance stalls with Selectboard

Staff directed to return Nov. 17 with more information — and, if possible, suggestions

BRATTLEBORO—The Selectboard has decided to pause a proposed ordinance to limit the amount of money landlords may require in advance from new tenants.

At least for now, the proposal, which had reached the first-reading stage of the public process designed to codify town ordinances, will not have its second reading.

Discussion at the Oct. 20 board meeting quickly highlighted that the proposal in its current form could create negative consequences not only for landlords but also for the very tenants it was created to help.

Currently, many landlords require prospective tenants to pay first and last months’ rent along with a security deposit.

The proposed ordinance championed by the Tenants Union of Brattleboro (TUB) would prohibit requiring last month’s rent and would limit the amount of the security deposit.

Concerns raised at the meeting included scenarios like tenants paying higher rents or going through stricter background checks. The board also expressed concern about increased costs to landlords if tenants were to apply the security deposit in lieu of the last month’s rent while also leaving damages in the vacated apartment.

Dory Hamm of TUB reminded the board that less money up front would mean more money in a tenant’s savings account, which “can save a life.”

Also speaking on behalf of TUB, Trevor Stannus acknowledged that the proposed ordinance would not solve the town’s larger housing needs. The proposal would, however, enact one small measure that would help many tenants, he said.

Stannus observed that the landlords who previously spoke against the ordinance focused on the money they’d lose. But tenants face the higher consequence of eviction — a “trauma,” he said — that outweighs money.

Steven K-Brooks said he has worked as a property manager and also created an auxiliary apartment in his home.

After sharing his own experience with homelessness, K-Brooks reminded everyone at the meeting that some of the stories tenants and landlords tell about each other are not absolute.

He added that when a tenant pays first, last, and security, it’s not just a business assurance, it’s also a sign of good faith.

“This is not just a cold-hearted relationship and we [tenants and landlords] are not commodities,” K-Brooks said. The community will “not create more chairs by restricting how the business relationship will be.”

The board also questioned the jurisdiction of a Housing Review Board included in the proposal. The hope had been that the Review Board could have given landlords and tenants a swifter avenue for resolving grievances compared to small claims court. Town Attorney Bob Fisher’s reading of the statute governing such a review board sees it having more limited authority.

These comments joined a previous worry from Selectboard Chair Tim Wessel and Vice Chair Liz McLoughlin about how many of Brattleboro’s housing problems the proposal would actually solve.

“The housing issues in Brattleboro require increased wages and incentives to create [an increased number of] housing units,” said McLoughlin. “This ordinance does neither, and it also has the ability to further penalize landlords in this situation.”

McLoughlin added that information gathered from the board’s previously authorized housing study would be a better place to start, she said.

Board Secretary Ian Goodnow countered McLoughlin, saying that the proposal could help potentially half the renters in Brattleboro. It’s the board’s job to innovate and solve problems, he added.

“It’s a real issue,” Goodnow said. “Not a thought experiment.”

Near the end of the night’s conversation, board member Daniel Quipp tipped the balance.

While Quipp wanted to provide tenants a tool to help them more easily access housing, he expressed that the number of “real consequences” being shared by both landlords and tenants made him hesitate.

Quipp said he felt bad voting to halt the proposal after previously supporting it, “but I don’t think I was elected to just be a robot.”

As a board member, he seeks to help tenants, he said — but tenants also need landlords, and burdening property owners will have consequences.

Quipp also noted that, through his job at Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA), he helps people with low income access funding programs that help supplement rental costs. He wanted to see a program that would help people in financial need but whose earning disqualified them from existing programs.

“I want people to be able to afford to move into places,” he said.

A few members of the public offered other solutions that the town could administer.One person whose name was not clear on the video image suggested creating some kind of fund that tenants could pay into and that would follow them from rental to rental.

Former Selectboard member Dick DeGray suggested creating a pot of money that landlords could access if a tenant left without paying the final month’s rent, for example.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said that town staff would need time to collect more information and determine which town monies could legally pay for the suggested housing tools.

The board is eyeing its pot of Community Development Block Grant program funds (CDBG). These federal funds are awarded to the state, which then passes them to local communities for projects such as economic development and housing.

Town staff will return to the board with the results of its investigations at the Nov. 17 Selectboard meeting.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #585 (Wednesday, October 28, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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