Investing in a community — a neighborhood — for 48 years

‘Our parents often told us that they never made money from the rental properties. We didn’t know how true that was.’

BRATTLEBORO — In a recent commentary, Selectboard member Brandie Starr called into question the commitment that landlords have to providing affordable housing. She asked, “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?”

We'd like to answer that question by sharing our story.

Our parents were landlords in Brattleboro for 48 years.

They started as renters, living in a second-floor apartment on Brook Street. In 1966, they bought the house that we grew up in and they called home for 54 years. They became landlords in 1971 when they purchased the first of three rental properties they would go on to own.

They didn't buy the properties as a financial investment. They bought them as an investment in their community - specifically, their own neighborhood. Two of the houses were next door to their own home (and just a few doors down from the house where our father lived as a toddler).

They wanted to make sure that the houses were well cared for and would provide affordable and safe housing for the people who lived in them.

The rents they charged were low (ranging from $900 for a three-bedroom apartment to $750 for a one-bedroom), and each apartment included heat, hot water, off-street parking, and a washer and dryer.

Once you moved in, you never saw a rent increase. Tenants rarely moved out, only doing so because they were leaving town or buying their own home. Our parents lovingly cared for the properties, our father spending his free time raking leaves or meticulously picking up sticks.

Our parents did not consider the people who rented from them part of a financial transaction. They were friends, and many became part of our family, joining us for meals in the backyard or for chocolate pie on Thanksgiving.

* * *

We now find ourselves reluctant landlords.

The properties we own came to us last year upon the death of our mother. As first-time landlords, we are learning as we go, but our goal is to honor our parents by being the kind of landlords they were.

They often told us that they never made money from the rental properties. We didn't know how true that was until this year.

Here's our reality: The rents we collect do not meet our expenses (property taxes, heat, water, sewer, insurance, and short- and long-term maintenance).

Let us be clear: Like our parents, we fully accept the responsibility and risk that comes with owning property. And we know that we are fortunate to have what we do.

But when expenses outpace income, decisions need to be made: delay maintenance, increase rents, or sell. Contrary to popular belief, not all landlords are rich. Some have no or limited capacity to absorb cost increases.

* * *

It must be acknowledged that not just landlords are responsible for keeping housing affordable. The Selectboard and Representative Town Meeting share this burden. As landlords, we control what amenities we offer and the quality of the housing. We do not control the property taxes we must pay.

The Selectboard annually puts together a budget outlining the services the town will provide, the amount that will be spent to provide those services, and the property taxes that need to be collected to cover their cost. The budget is then voted on by Town Meeting representatives. If it increases property taxes, that could result in rent hikes.

If landlords are being challenged to provide affordable housing, then the Selectboard and Town Meeting representatives must be challenged to do their respective parts by keeping property taxes affordable.

* * *

It does a disservice to our community to paint a one-dimensional picture of landlords as people who care only about the bottom line.

That was not true of our parents, it is not true of us, and it is not true of the majority of landlords in our town. Such a characterization only serves to divide tenants and landlords.

We will continue to do our part to provide safe and affordable housing. We believe that together, landlords, tenants, and elected officials can all, to quote Ms. Starr, “be part of the movement toward a sustainable community.”

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