Brattleboro officials say ‘life safety’ prompts rental policy

Brattleboro officials say ‘life safety’ prompts rental policy

Town officials clarify what the town would — and would not — be able to do under the proposed rental housing inspection program

BRATTLEBORO — With some controversy emerging from the proposed rental inspection and registration program, town officials want to clarify a few points.

Namely, this isn't much different from what is already happening - there will just be more of it.

“The town has always been proactive with inspections, but we were limited. There was no full-time staff for this,” explained Town Manager Peter B. Elwell.

The two main inspectors, Brattleboro Assistant Fire Chief Leonard Howard III and Zoning Inspector Brian Bannon, currently divide up the labor depending on the complaint.

And, Elwell noted, they mostly show up to rental homes and apartments as a result of complaints. Howard typically addresses what's happening in the house, such as fire code and health and safety concerns. Bannon works mainly outside, looking at property conditions that violate town ordinances.

Elwell also noted Howard and Bannon were showing up to each rental home or apartment only about once every 10 years.

“We don't think, broadly across the community, we've been maintaining a high enough standard for housing,” Elwell told The Commons.

In viewing the issue through the lens of public policy, he noted that rental housing is “a substantial community resource,” especially in Brattleboro, where he said more than half of the housing units in town are rentals.

In the current configuration, the town does not have the resources to fully comply with its own standards, said Elwell, and “we need to increase our commitment.”

Looking to other municipalities

After Howard brought the issue to the Town Manager's office and the Selectboard, he and Elwell did some research.

They looked at what other municipalities around the state - including Burlington, St. Albans City, Barre City, Winooski, and St. Johnsbury - are doing about registering and inspecting residential rentals.

“We saw a scale,” said Elwell. Some towns inspect more often and charge higher fees; others don't.

“What's most effective is a proactive program and a fee - not paid through the General Fund,” he added.

The proposal Elwell and Howard developed, according to Elwell, is “calibrated, and affordable for landlords, while still committed to public safety.”

The plan is to inspect each rental home once every four years, and town staff would conduct the inspections during their overtime periods. During the inspection year, the landlord would pay a $75 registration fee per unit.

After the inspection, the landlord will receive a Certificate of Habitability for that unit, valid for four years. The landlord would not pay anything during the other three years. Thus, the monthly cost, when broken down over the four-year cycle, would be $1.56 per month per unit.

“The only exception is if a violation is found during the four years or if the building ownership is [transferred], a new certificate will need to be issued,” reads the draft program document.

“We're trying to cover our costs and do this in a fair way,” said Elwell, who added, “we've made a sincere effort not to make this an onerous fee. It's fair to the landlords, and it's fair to the town.”

First concern: safety

In an inspection, what will a town official look for?

Howard said the state mandates a process that includes what he looks for and what he doesn't.

“My first concern is life safety,” said Howard. Those for whom he is concerned include tenants, neighbors, landlords, the general public, and his staff.

The draft inspection program document lists a number of potential major and minor violations.

“The number-one big thing is, no [smoke or carbon monoxide] detectors, or disabled detectors,” said Howard.

His second major concern is “blocked egress, such as stuff stored in hallways or blocked windows,” he said.

Minor violations include issues such as a missing outlet or switch covers, mold, missing handrails, no fire extinguishers, no window or exhaust fan in a bathroom.

Lead-paint violations constitute “a huge one in the housing code,” said Howard, who noted that most landlords don't know about such regulations. “I educate them and lead them to resources,” he said.

All buildings built before 1978 must be certified every year by the property owner, and the state has strict rules on how to fix, clean up, and maintain surfaces with lead paint.

Hoarding: a common issue

Another concern of Howard's - and one that presents a delicate situation - is when tenants have extremely unsafe or unsanitary living conditions.

Hoarding is a common issue. “I'm seeing a lot of that,” said Howard. “People need a lot of help overcoming that. You can't just tell them to get rid of [their belongings.] You have to help them,” he said.

Howard describes as “a very touchy situation” the personal behaviors that have possible health and safety ramifications for the individual, for firefighters, and for the general community. He said he's trying to learn more, and steer people struggling with hoarding toward the many community resources that could help them.

And it is a serious safety issue. In a dwelling where hoarding happens, the tenant's ability to egress - get safely out of a building when there's a fire or other grave danger - can be severely limited.

The proliferation of extra belongings adds to the fire load, too, Howard noted, and if that load exceeds the sprinklers' output, “Even in a building with sprinklers, the fire can overtake those sprinklers,” he said.

Getting out of a burning home quickly is paramount, and doing so might be harder today than it was even a few decades ago.

“Fires from 30 years ago are different from today,” said Howard, because many of us live in homes with new materials, such as plastics, which are made from oil, natural gas, and petrochemical byproducts.

In terms of firefighting, “one pound of plastic is equivalent to one gallon of gasoline,” he said.

“You have two minutes from when the fire starts to get out,” said Howard, and he noted the clock doesn't begin ticking when you hear the smoke alarm - at that point, the fire has already begun burning.

Not spot inspections

Howard compared the housing inspection program to the state's car registration requirement.

“You have to get your car registered every year for safety issues,” he said, and pointed out that if the ordinance passes, “we're doing that every four years for the same reason.”

“The car registration is for the owners and the passengers, and for the public,” Elwell said, and added, “it's the same for this. The whole community benefits.”

Elwell pointed out the rental unit inspections “are not spot inspections. The landlord and tenants are warned. We have to give 48 hours' notice unless it's a serious situation. Even then, there's some notice to the landlord and tenants. It's not just a knock on the door.”

The notice typically gives landlords and tenants between 30 and 60 days before an inspection, said Howard. If there's a violation, the landlord will get it in writing and will then have 30-45 days to cure basic issues.

For more serious violations, like a missing smoke or carbon monoxide detector, “it's a shorter timeline,” said Howard.

What happens next depends on the landlord's efforts.

“If they're making progress, we work with them on deadlines. I'd rather them spend money to fix violations than on fines,” said Howard.

But if a landlord is making no effort, the town reserves the right to fine the property owner and shut the building down.

Protecting tenant safety and preserving privacy

With public officials entering a home, should residents be concerned about their private lives?

What would happen, for example, if Howard saw drug paraphernalia?

“That's not what I'm looking for. That's not why I'm there,” Howard replied, and added, “it's not my duty to say anything to anybody,” including landlords or law enforcement, about anything beyond what's in the health and fire-safety codes.

If Howard notices a resident's living conditions reflect extreme distress, such as hoarding, or egregious sanitary concerns - like feces on the floor or walls - “I'd reach out to the civilian social worker.”

Kristen Neuf, an employee of Health Care & Rehabilitation Services (HCRS), is embedded at the Brattleboro Police Department, but is not a law-enforcement officer.

“We're there for life-safety and rental housing codes. If we see someone who needs help, we're going to help them get help if they're willing to get help,” said Howard.

The public has access to all housing inspection records, so anyone can come to the Central Fire Station on Elliot Street and view what Howard, Bannon, and other inspectors look for and find. One can view the records for free, but there's a small fee for copies.

The funding for the rental housing program was included in the proposed fiscal year 2020 municipal budget, approved by the Selectboard on Jan. 29. It next goes to Representative Town Meeting for members' final consideration.

Beyond that, the next step for the rental housing program is for the Selectboard to approve an ordinance detailing the registration and the four-year inspection cycle.

Town officials, including Bannon, Elwell, Howard, and Town Attorney Bob Fisher, are still working on the draft ordinance.

Elwell noted that the draft ordinance “will likely reflect community input, including from landlords” and estimates that it will be ready for the first reading at a Selectboard meeting in late March or April.

“We're looking to have it adopted for a July 1 effective date,” Elwell said. Howard noted he and his staff are ready to implement it then.

“The Selectboard will decide if it needs more work, or they'll approve it for the final reading,” he said.

But if it takes longer, that's okay, said Elwell.

“It can start later in the summer, and it will still give us time to do the first year's round of inspections. There's some timing flexibility here in ensuring we develop the proper ordinance,” he said.

“The funding will be there,” he added. “The ordinance will empower the work to be done.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates