We all deserve safe, affordable housing. All of us.

We all deserve safe, affordable housing. All of us.

From reading the landlords’ alarmed responses, one would imagine the proposed rental ordinance included seizing their property or burning their houses down

BRATTLEBORO — After reading the views written by landlords in response to the proposed ordinance regulating residential rental move-in fees, I, like Paul E. Normandeau, “have several personal reactions.”

Sadness. Anger. Confusion. Betrayal. Hopelessness. Frustration.

Since reading these property-owners' words, I've asked myself, “Is this community really for me? Was I mistaken when I believed my values were reflected in the culture here in the Brattleboro area?”

And I've wondered if any of these landlords have ever been in a desperate situation. I don't mean, “Honey, we have to wait a few months to buy a brand new car, or shorten our trip to the Cape.” I mean, “Where will I go when I get evicted?”

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I've made my (rented) home here because I thought the ethos of this place was about fairness, equity, access, lifting up the most vulnerable among us, and promoting true diversity.

To me, the latter means supporting a mixture of people of different races, classes, and genders, but also backgrounds and interests. It means welcoming struggling artists as well as comfortable bankers, and everyone in between, and ensuring they have the means to live decent, dignified lives here, regardless of how much money or property they have - or don't have.

Maybe the landlords who wrote their views believe they stand for these things. But they are mistaken. Clearly, their beliefs about themselves and their actions are in conflict, and that makes me sad and frustrated.

I invite them - and you, dear reader - to ask yourself: “Do I believe that decent, safe housing is a human right, available to anyone who qualifies simply by being born? Or do I believe that decent, safe housing is only for those who can afford it or who can otherwise prove that they deserve it?”

When we ask someone to prove they deserve decent, safe housing, we are leaving someone out.

And that someone could be a veteran living under a bridge right now, or with his children in his car right now, or with her abusive husband in a house of terror right now.

It could be a young artist trying to move out of their family's home, or a working person trying to vacate a violence- and bedbug-infested apartment house owned by a neglectful slumlord on Oak Street.

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From reading the landlords' alarmed responses, one would imagine the proposed rental ordinance included seizing their property or burning their houses down.

All this would do is limit the amount of money a landlord can collect from a new renter to the first month's rent and a security deposit equivalent to one month's rent. It would prohibit the collection of the last month's rent.

This means that, for example, when a person wants to rent a one-bedroom apartment in a building that Kate O'Connor and Kerry O'Connor Amidon inherited, they need to pay $1,500, not $2,250, for the right to move in. That's a big difference to a working person.

This proposal isn't radical. As Selectboard Chair Tim Wessel points out, it's currently in use in Burlington. He neglected to mention it's also a law in the entire state of New Hampshire and all five boroughs of New York City. Hardly bastions of revolutionary governance. Hardly places where renters routinely destroy rental housing and flee during the last month of their tenancy.

I also hope Mr. Normandeau advocates for Mr. Wessel to recuse himself from voting on the proposed rental ordinance. Conflict of interest is key here, and Mr. Wessel clearly stands to profit (or avoid not profiting) from rejecting this proposal because he owns rental property in Brattleboro.

For Mr. Normandeau to demand Selectboard member Brandie Starr recuse herself because he deems her incapable of being impartial is an insult to Ms. Starr's intelligence, experience, and ability to research and integrate information.

It's also irrelevant. There is no requirement, written or inferred, that a public official in the executive segment of municipal governance must be “impartial,” and Mr. Normandeau, from viewing one Selectboard meeting, couldn't possibly know Ms. Starr's research methods.

And, unlike Mr. Wessel, Ms. Starr does not stand to profit from this ordinance passing or failing.

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But I'm not done with Mr. Wessel.

In his essay, he uses the old tricks of mixing up correlation vs. causation, and of demanding the opposition prove a negative, to distort the debate.

That Burlington has had an ordinance governing move-in fees since 1986 is not the reason rental housing in that city is scarce or expensive. There is no way to prove that, without this ordinance, rental housing in Burlington would be more plentiful and less expensive.

There are many reasons why Burlington - and Brattleboro - has long experienced housing crises. Most of them have to do with a lack of land on which to build new housing, building privately owned, affordable housing in a capitalist system, weak or absent rental ordinances, and both towns being places where poor or working people must live to access school, work, services, and a community.

I am also concerned with Mr. Wessel's phrase “the problematic issue of municipal overreach of authority into the workings of a private transaction.”

What does our Selectboard chair think the role of government is? So much of the state's role is to regulate private transactions, and by “the state” I mean local, state, and federal governing bodies.

How does he ensure that every time he fills up his car's gas tank, the gallon he's paying for is truly the gallon he receives? When he goes to the bank, who does he think is ensuring that the money he deposited is available for him to withdraw?

A message to you, Mr. Wessel: The town - in its role as a municipal governing entity - certainly has an interest in ensuring its housing stock is safe, affordable, and accessible.

If he is so interested in avoiding the state's interference in a “private transaction,” why would he support George Carvill's (misguided) proposal to create a municipal loan fund for renters?

The short answer? It shifts the burden of risk from private capital to the state.

While on the surface Mr. Carvill's proposal makes sense, minor scrutiny reveals it for what it actually is: an attempt to socialize risk and to privatize and protect profit.

It's offensive to shift the cost of minimizing property owners' potential risks to all taxpayers and renters. That's what it would do, because it's asking the public to pay the costs of administering this loan program and of indemnifying rental property owners against risk.

That's backwards. That's wealth extraction. Poor people should not be responsible for protecting wealthier people's investments.

Such a loan program would add an extra layer of unneeded bureaucracy to this process. It's a technocratic kicking-of-the-can down the road, further separating needy people from a safe place to live. It will unfairly place the burden on the renter, of “proving” they “deserve” housing.

* * *

Poor and working people already spend an inordinate amount of time searching for and uploading and photocopying and mailing documents. Answering some stranger's endless, intrusive questions to prove we're worthy of some “benefit” that often barely meets the need, if it meets it at all.

Ask any one of us who has applied for food stamps, unemployment insurance, Section 8, Social Security disability insurance, fuel assistance, and other such programs. With COVID-19, you don't need to look far: more of us have found ourselves here.

Poor and working people already know what we need right now, and we're telling you right now.

We don't need a loan program with more means-testing. We don't need your “not all landlords” virtue signaling.

We don't need your leftover chocolate pie. We need safe, decent housing, and right now, we don't have it. We need it to be affordable, and we need it right now.

So what are you going to do about it?

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