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Voices / Viewpoint

We do need a chainsaw

Brattleboro is losing the battle of gentrification, and we are not moving fast enough to stop it

Doran Hamm describes himself as “a born-and-raised Vermonter, teacher, children’s theater performer, and tenant of Brattleboro.”


Life is increasingly becoming too expensive to live here, and it’s been happening over a long time.

Selectboard Chair Tim Wessel wrote an opinion piece about the proposed security deposit ordinance, in which he used the saying, “The road to ruin is paved with good intentions.”

I’d counter with, “The road to ruin is paved by those afraid to stop it.”

This is what we know:

• The first wave of shops and businesses have closed due to coronavirus. Meanwhile, wealthy out-of-staters flocked to the safe haven of our small town.

• Sixty percent of Brattleboro’s population are renters.

• Over 50 percent of Brattleboro renters are increasingly cost-burdened or extremely cost-burdened (meaning that 30 to 50 percent of their incomes go to housing costs).

• When the eviction moratorium ends in Vermont, an estimated 10,000 Vermonters will face losing their housing.

• Our housing-insecure-support network does not have the resources to accommodate those numbers.

* * *

When I was in massage school, I tried to find an apartment, and the majority that I could find of decent quality required first and last month’s rent, and a security deposit.

However, I was supporting myself through school and paying out of pocket, so I could afford only the first month’s rent and security deposit and moved into a run-down, poorly insulated apartment with two friends.

That winter, I would sit in my kitchen with the gas oven on, wearing three layers, with quilts hung over the windows to stay warm. I got pneumonia — not a terrible case, but enough to have a months’ worth of painful coughing.

I do not tell this story for sympathy, but because it is a common enough illustration of cause and effect.

If it had not been for the cost of the last month’s rent, I could have lived in comfort through that winter in a decent apartment instead of struggling in a run-down one.

I have always been embarrassed to share this story, because in a capitalist society we are not supposed to share our economic hardships publicly. I come from a hard-working lower-middle-class family, and I am extremely privileged with my family and community.

I am a normal young Vermonter. The vast majority of renters have worse stories than I.

* * *

I want to give kudos to the Selectboard of Brattleboro for the work they do. Their jobs are incredibly hard as they balance the pros and cons of business and its community members’ needs.

However, there is an unbalanced dynamic coming from members of higher economic comfort that is disheartening. A few Selectboard members and a few landlords spoke so dismissively of those in daily struggle.

The relief of having an extra month’s worth of money in the bank is safety, it is security, it is a decent sense of well being. People who have never struggled economically would not know these feelings.

Simple ordinances like a limit on security deposits have to become commonplace. Otherwise, Brattleboro will continue to become more expensive as the middle- and lower-class working people are pushed out or into low-income housing with long waits.

Our community will cease to be economically diverse, and it will become a town just for the wealthy.This slide is actively happening right now — anyone who has been here for 10 years or longer can see this.

When ordinances support only the wealthy few, then the status quo is held in place via fear of change.

Some Selectboard members say that the most important thing to tackle right now is raising the minimum wage. However, the board does not have the power to make that happen.

It does, though, have the power to cap security deposits. The straightforward proposal for an ordinance to do so is similar (if not identical) to security-deposit limits in New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and many other states in the U.S. and, in Vermont, in the city of Burlington.

* * *

Tim also said that “this ordinance feels like using a chainsaw to operate on a patient, when what we need here is a scalpel.” I’d say to use this metaphor best, the real work we need to do is with a chainsaw.

We need to chainsaw the old status quo, because life as we knew it before the coronavirus is over. What will come after will be different, and it will be what we decide. If 2020 seemed challenging, don’t begin to delude yourself that a Biden presidency and 2021 will be a whole lot easier.

I say that we, as good Vermonters, should do that hard work, face our fears, use that chainsaw, champion our lower-income neighbors, and pass small ordinances that keep money in the bank accounts of the most housing-insecure renters.

I trust in the bravery of the Selectboard to do so.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #588 (Wednesday, November 18, 2020). This story appeared on page C3.

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