Renters and landlords are not in a democratic relationship

Landlords have reacted emotionally to the Tenants’ Union proposal. They believe they are not inflicting harm, but their worldview is shrouded — and understandably so. It is difficult to comprehend and admit to being part of a system that perpetuates poverty.

BRATTLEBORO — Brandie Starr, a member of the Selectboard, recently wrote “Landlords, what do you want to invest in?” [Viewpoint, Sept. 16], in which she directly addresses community members and, more specifically, landlords. Her article is in reaction to, and support of, a now-notorious proposal written by the Tenants' Union of Brattleboro (TUB), which limits security deposits to an amount of one month's rent.

Since the proposal was added to the Selectboard meeting agenda and since Starr has voiced her support, there have been rumblings of discontent from the landlord community, from voices of opposition at the Selectboard meetings to local landlord Deedee Jones's rebuttal piece [“Owning rental property is a business,” Counterpoint, Sept. 23], to emails sent directly to the Tenants' Union.

I am a member of TUB and a tenant who has rented four apartments in Brattleboro. On behalf of myself and the Tenant's Union, I would like to elaborate on Starr's points and examine the conditions that make a proposal like this reasonable, necessary and, quite honestly, not very radical.

I would also like to address some of the voiced and rumored concerns from our local landlords.

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As Starr and others have mentioned, laws similar to what TUB is proposing exist in almost a dozen states, including New Hampshire (since 1985) and Rhode Island (since 1986), as well as several cities.

When we discuss housing in regards to these states, what is unique to Vermont is that our population is in decline. Year over year, we have more people dying than are being born.

In 2019, Vermont saw its 10th consecutive year of more people moving out of state than coming to live here, and real estate agents warn the current influx of residents due to the pandemic is a bubble likely to burst. Why are we continually trending in this direction?

In addition to our scant job market, we have very real and present housing issues across the state.

According to the VtDigger in 2019, the state is reported to be the second-highest rate of second-homes ownership per capita in the U.S.

According to the Rutland Herald in 2020, we also have the fifth-largest affordability gap for renters in the country. The fifth-largest. In 2019, VPR reported that 51 percent of Vermont renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

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In reaction to the security deposit proposal, many challengers have become far too comfortable throwing around the names of Groundworks and Windham & Windsor Housing Trust as an alternative or even the entire solution to unaffordable rent.

Nonprofits, especially those receiving only a fraction of their operating costs from local government, and charities are a reaction to the failures of our economic systems and should not be the norm.

Groundworks Executive Director Josh Davis wrote in March that homelessness exists in our community only because we lack the will and commitment to end it. These organizations should not exist as an excuse for damaging practices.

Other landlords have relayed that they will be retaliating by raising their rents and keeping (they use the word “making”) housing unaffordable. Others have suggested the town create a loan system for renters who cannot afford their move-in costs.

Aside from the fact that security deposits themselves are loans that the tenant gives to the landlord, this idea goes against the goal of alleviating struggle from the working class. Loans that are exploitative, as in ones that are targeted to low-income individuals so that they may have shelter, are described as predatory.

No one makes a choice to be unsheltered.

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I am very well aware that many call this proposal divisive or polarizing. Although the Tenants' Union will not relent from our fundamental belief - that housing is a human right and should not be run as a business - this proposal will not by any measure end the rental business.

Those inferring divisiveness have suggested that tenants and landlords should work together, but the sentiment is patronizing and unrealistic. Renters and people who are homeless are not in an equal or even democratic relationship with landlords. (For example, background checks only go one way, and landlords set the price and grant access to shelter.)

Believing that any rights won by those most marginalized was done hand in hand with those profiting off of them is like believing Pilgrims and Native Americans held fair negotiations over a turkey dinner.

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As Brandie argues, landlords who are also community members should examine how they can be part of making Brattleboro sustainable, but many are instead reacting emotionally. They believe they are not inflicting harm, but their worldview is shrouded - and understandably so.

It is difficult to comprehend and admit that you are part of a system that perpetuates poverty. It is the same reason why people who have a “buy local” bumper sticker on their car likely wince when they turn to Amazon out of desperation. It is the same reason why looking at unconscious bias is such an emotional, difficult and, now, controversial practice.

But this is also why books like White Fragility are at the top of The New York Times' bestsellers list and why those “buy local” bumper stickers are created in the first place. This is also why ordinances like this one get proposed and passed.

As a member of this community who has attended several Selectboard meetings and serves as a town representative, it is very clear that many of the generation who have not been renters or first-time homebuyers during this era of extreme inflation and stifled wages have very little concern for these issues.

When Starr speaks of sustainability, she is recognizing the deterioration of livability here that, although backed by the aforementioned data, is difficult to empathize with or feel passionate about unless you are not in control of your housing.

Yes, I would argue that we are facing the gentrification and moral dissolve of our “quirky” and “progressive” town, but by being passive, we are also unwittingly contributing to the housing issues that cause Vermont's population decline. We see regular opposition to thoroughly researched and innovative solutions that come in the form of proposals by passionate and unpaid community members.

Vermont and Brattleboro need radical change, and housing accessibility is more than just a drop in the bucket. Brandie asks landlords if they want to invest in the people of their community, but I want to know what the other members of the Selectboard are investing in.

Do you believe that you have done everything in your power to bring stability to our most vulnerable?

Are you willing to prioritize your community members over your tourists, even if it upsets people in your own social circles, profession, or class?

Do you think that the systems we have in place are enough for today's world?

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