Why use a chainsaw when we need a scalpel?

We must encourage landlords to refurbish old units and create new ones — not to discourage them with a restrictive ordinance that increases their risks and does little to help the financial plight of our renters

BRATTLEBORO — It is often said that the road to ruin is paved with good intentions. When we, as a community, seek to help people through broad policy changes, we must be careful that our actions have the effect we desire.

Your Selectboard is currently being asked to craft and then pass an ordinance that would limit how much a landlord can charge for a security deposit - one that would essentially make it illegal to collect last-month rent up front.

Setting aside the problematic issue of municipal overreach of authority into the workings of a private transaction and questions around how to manage enforcement, I'm very concerned that taking this action might have significant unintended consequences for Brattleboro.

In Vermont, only Burlington and Barre have enacted such rules.

In the case of Barre, a popular vote just removed both this ordinance and the accompanying bureaucracy of its housing board, mainly because the city could not find enough volunteers to consistently serve.

In Burlington, this law has been on the books since 1986, and you'd be hard-pressed to find any evidence that this ordinance has helped the financial plight of renters, who pay on average $200 to $400 more per month there than renters here do, according to recent data.

But my biggest concern about prohibiting collection of last month's rent is that there's good reason to believe that doing so will drive rents up.

And that is indeed the biggest barrier to renters in Brattleboro.

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Landlords are in a business that our town desperately needs them to be in. They manage housing stock for those who either must or choose to rent rather than own.

With any business, risk is a factor, and one of the biggest risks to landlords is to have tenants who do not pay their rents. Eviction is a long and costly process that no one wants to initiate - a process that is also currently prohibited because of COVID-19.

So to manage their risks, landlords who won't know whether a tenant will cover their last month's rent will likely seek a higher monthly rent to cover possible losses.

They could also become much more selective when reviewing applications. We have already heard from several multi-unit owners that if they don't know that the last month is prepaid, they would rely far more heavily on good credit scores and proof of savings before renting.

More risk, in this case, will result in more cautiousness with potential renters - yet another barrier to many low-income renters here.

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Our problem with rental housing is twofold: We have a limited supply of housing stock, and the rentals that we do have are priced fairly high due to that limited supply.

How would this ordinance help renters with the real issue of apartment affordability? It would not, since a renter's last month rent is either paid up front or not, but either way it is rent that must be paid. While the second month's rent can be a burden at the beginning of the lease, it definitely then becomes a blessing upon leaving, when that month's earnings can be applied to the next apartment costs instead.

As I've pointed out in several Selectboard meetings, I'm a landlord who manages two rentals, in the building where I used to live. I choose not to require last month's rent up front, and often tenants are surprised at that but appreciative. Most have seemed very prepared to pay more money upon moving in, and a few have told me that they could do so because they didn't have to pay their last month's rent at their previous rental.

What's a better course here to alleviate our tight housing market?

Exactly what your Selectboard has been doing over the past several months: relaxing building codes to encourage the creation of new housing units, and making strategic public investments in projects (like the Snow Block and the Sanel Building renovation) that will replace empty lots or empty buildings with multiple mixed-income units.

The idea is to both encourage investments in refurbishing old units and creating new ones, especially downtown - not to discourage existing and potential landlords with a restrictive ordinance that increases their risks while frankly doing little in helping the financial plight of our renters.

Last year, it rankled a few of our local landlords when the Selectboard passed our safety inspection ordinance, but we did so unanimously because it was clearly in the interest of all renters that we establish a baseline of safety standards. I believe we were justified in asking them to bear the cost of those basic safety checks.

I'm hard-pressed to see this ordinance in the same light, especially when its consequences haven't been fully explored.

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Kudos to the local activists who are seeking to have this change enacted. The intention of helping to get people safely and affordably housed is a good one, and this is a conversation that must happen.

But this ordinance feels like using a chainsaw to operate on a patient, when what we need here is a scalpel.

Rather than set up a landlord-versus-tenant battle, since each party needs the other to act in good faith, I'd encourage re-framing the problem in search of a creative solution.

If the problem here is truly the move-in cost burden, let's think about how to solve it without discouraging good landlords from investing here.

Many landlords already work out payment plans with renters for them to afford the last month's rent, but a couple have gone further in suggesting that the town (or a private entity) establish a loan fund to help tenants afford a move. George Carvill has suggested that tenants be able to borrow up to one half of initial costs, to be repaid over several months.

We already loan funds to potential landlords to create new housing stock, so why not a one-time loan for tenants, too? This program might be a win for all parties involved, while also avoiding conflict that does not help build community.

As we continue to pursue good policies that will encourage the creation of more safe, attractive, and affordable housing, I'll be encouraging my fellow Selectboard members to consider these points carefully in the weeks ahead.

We all need to move forward with the best interests of the financial health and welfare of all of our residents, but also with actions that don't thwart those intentions with avoidable and poor outcomes for the very people we seek to help.

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