Brattleboro landlords react to changes in inspections

Owners of rental housing present Selectboard with a range of views about the proposed change in the town’s stepped-up inspection program — and the fees that would fund it

BRATTLEBORO — The Selectboard is considering a proposal to increase and expand the town's rental-housing inspection program.

With the Board expecting to make a decision at its Jan. 29 regular meeting, a few landlords and property managers appeared at the Jan. 22 special Selectboard meeting to register their reactions to the program.

Some liked it, but not necessarily as it would apply to their properties. Some objected to the fees, while others were adamantly against it.

Two landlords voiced their strong support for increasing rental housing inspections.

Because it includes a change in the municipal budget, the proposal must be approved - first by the Board and then by Representative Town Meeting - as part of the fiscal year 2020 budget.

The town must also add a new ordinance.

“This is a recognized need,” said Town Manager Peter B. Elwell at the Dec. 11 special Selectboard meeting, where the proposal was introduced [“Brattleboro eyes new rules for rental properties,” News, Dec. 19, 2018].

During conversations at the Selectboard level, and in other meetings and informal talks, “problem properties” have been identified, Elwell said, and the problems in these properties especially affect the quality and safety of housing for the town's lower-income residents.

“Providing decent housing is an important baseline to households, families, and individuals being able to live a healthy and productive life,” said Elwell.

The proposal, submitted by Assistant Fire Chief Leonard Howard III, would create a formal rental housing inspection registration and inspection program, wherein Howard and his staff would inspect every unit in town once every four years.

Currently, said Howard, he can inspect a unit only about once every decade.

Under the proposal, landlords would have to register their rental homes and apartments and pay $75 for each unit only in the year the unit is scheduled for inspection. The proposed fee breaks down to $18.75 per year, or just over $1.56 per month, over the four-year cycle.

The program, which will add $50,000 to the FY20 budget to cover costs, will also bring in $56,250 in annual revenue.

The town will pay the firefighters overtime for this task, and that funding will come from these registration fees. Elwell noted this program will “have no tax impact” on the general population.

If the Selectboard approves Howard's proposal, the program will begin with the new fiscal year, in July. In the meantime, the Board would need to change the town's ordinances.

Property owners stand up for 'good landlords'

Sally Fegley, who, with her husband Tom Fegley owns Windham Property Management Inc., spoke against applying the program to “good” landlords but encouraged the town to use it to correct the actions of “bad” landlords.

“I applaud the town's intent to monitor and improve the condition of rental properties,” said Sally Fegley, who added, “Blighted properties pull down the value of their neighborhoods and the town.”

She noted renters suffer under these conditions, too.

“Good” landlords, said Fegley, “are integral to the fabric of a healthy community.” And charging such landlords registration and inspection fees would punish them and create “an unaffordable burden,” she said.

That, in turn, would likely result in landlords raising rents “for their tenants who are already stretched thin,” she asserted.

Fegley agreed that maintaining good rental properties benefits the whole town. Because of this, she argued, every taxpayer in town should share inspection costs and the cost should come from the town's general fund.

She likened it to the education tax, which childless taxpayers also support.

Tom Fegley read statements from two landlords, clients of Windham Property Management.

Both said that if a landlord neglects a property, the town should be proactive in addressing the issue. One noted that “between the Police Department and the Fire Department, they should know who the culprits are.”

Hugh Barber, owner of the Manley Apartments, said the Selectboard should assess whether the inspection fees are fair. He also cautioned against possible lawsuits if a town inspector misses a violation and as a consequence someone is harmed by a health- or safety-code violation.

“Walk before you run with this proposal,” urged Barber, who noted, “I think overall it's great. You want to have safe housing for people in our community, but [look at] all of the ramifications of the policy.”

Fric Spruyt, who owns multiple rental properties in town, objected to the cost and the program itself.

“I've been concerned awhile about fees that keep getting piled on landlords and property owners,” he said, and added, “now you want us to pay for inspections that we're already paying taxes for.”

Spruyt wants to keep things as they are.

“The current inspection program I feel is working very well. I've had several years' worth of routine inspections. It's a good system,” he said.

Landlords Jacqueline Reis and Iishana Artra spoke together in favor of the proposed inspection program.

Both of them, said Reis, “have been affected by the drop in the standard of cleanliness and safety in the town,” and they believe the proposed ordinance will “directly address that.”

“And we feel that it's worth $2 a month to protect each rental unit, thereby the whole building, the neighborhood, and ultimately the whole town.”

Reis encouraged landlords to weigh this cost against the stress and expense of property damage, evictions, “and lower rents related to the increase of crime and drugs in our neighborhoods.”

She did not explain how inspection of rental homes or apartments correlate to crime or drug use.

Reis did anticipate the rental-housing inspectors would increase their surveillance of tenants' behaviors in their own homes, thus providing landlords “leverage” in “dealing with problem tenants [...] because the town will be able to document what is happening in units,” she said.

This program, she said, would increase landlords' collaboration with “town officials who are allies in the protections of our buildings and neighborhoods” by giving landlords documentation for “issuing warnings.”

Inspections, Reis said, will give landlords “leverage” against “nuisance tenants” and “bad actors,” and make the reports a matter of public record.

An unidentified renter supported Reis's position, and said, “I live in one of the buildings that is not safe,” but stated she cannot afford to “move to a nicer place.”

The single mother said she prohibits her teenaged daughter from walking her dog in the backyard “or outside at all because of the exposure of these people,” referring to “drug dealers and drug addicts who won't get the help they need.”

Newfane resident Brenda Siegel, who has spoken publicly about her family members who have struggled with, and died from, drug addiction, voiced her objection to the negative characterization of people using substances as “bad actors.”

Siegel noted people who struggle with drug use are suffering, “and their families are often doing all they can to keep them alive.”

Siegel noted that “all of our children are at risk” for substance use and addiction.

“It's not 'us versus them,'” said Siegel. “This is my family.”

More opportunity for comment

There will be other opportunities for the public to weigh in on this proposal.

At the Jan. 22 meeting, Selectboard Chair Kate O'Connor noted that the rental housing inspection and registration program would require an ordinance change.

That process would require more discussion during the two public readings of the proposed ordinance.

“We haven't seen the draft ordinance, yet,” she said.

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