Brattleboro moves forward with proposal for rent ordinance

First of two public hearings on security deposit proposal scheduled for Oct. 20

BRATTLEBORO — The Selectboard will hold the first of two public hearings on a proposal to restrict the up-front amount landlords charge renters.

If approved, the proposal would limit the deposit that landlords may require tenants pay on an apartment to no more than first month's rent and a security deposit equal to half a month's rent.

Establishing a quasi-judicial Housing Board of Review to hear grievances on the part of tenants and landlords is also part of the proposal.

The board voted 3–2 to move the proposal to the public hearing stage, the next step required to enact an ordinance.

The hearing will take place during the board's regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 20.

State statute allows towns to pass ordinances governing security deposits. Two other towns, Burlington and Barre City, have passed similar measures. The proposal under consideration in Brattleboro is based on Burlington's ordinance, said Town Attorney Bob Fisher.

The town is preparing to launch a Housing Needs Assessment, according to Planning Director Sue Fillion.

She informed the board in a memo that Barre City residents voted in March to rescind its ordinance, but the Legislature hasn't approved the charter change yet.

Fillion also noted that housing costs takes a significant chunk out of many renters' income.

By federal standards, rent, mortgages, taxes, insurance, and utilities should not exceed 30 percent of a household's income for housing to be considered affordable. Households spending more than 30 percent on housing are considered cost-burdened while households spending more than 50 percent are considered severely cost-burdened.

According to data collected by Fillion from the Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) website, approximately half of Brattleborians rent, with 27 percent of renters considered cost-burdened and 28 percent severely cost-burdened.

The town's vacancy rate - the number of open units at any time - varies between 0.5 percent and 2.8 percent.

“A rental housing market is typically considered healthy when its vacancy rates are between 4 to 6 percent,” wrote Fillion. “Low rental vacancy rates are typically interpreted as a sign of a tight housing market, with lower vacancy rates signaling a great housing shortage.”

In her memo summary, Fillion added, “Access to affordable housing is one of the largest obstacles facing renters today, and though the Coronavirus pandemic has catalyzed many pre-existing issues, we need to treat these issues as long-standing and, without mitigation, persistent.”

“Limiting the cost of required deposits is a simple, immediate, and effective step in this direction,” Fillion wrote.

Lowering a cost barrier

Members of the Tenants Union of Brattleboro (TUB) brought the proposal before the board. TUB is described on its website as “a member-run, anti-capitalist, democratic collective organizing the tenant class throughout Brattleboro and its outlying towns. Through education, direct action, and coalition building, we are working to dismantle the current tenant-landlord paradigm and place power back into the hands of the tenants.”

At the Oct. 6 board meeting, a number of tenants speaking in favor of the proposed ordinance described the hardships of renting in the area.

Their complaints included affordability issues as well as subpar housing that they said contributed to people becoming ill. The tenants who spoke said that on top of those challenges, raising the equivalent of three months' rent is an onerous struggle for many.

For them, the proposed ordinance would lower a cost barrier to finding new housing.

Landlords also spoke about the difficulties of operating rental units in town, citing factors like high taxes, tenants who damage the proprieties, and regulations.

By the end of the evening's almost three-hour conversation, it seemed that housing in the region, like so much of the economy, isn't working well for anybody.

Board member Daniel Quipp said he didn't see the proposed ordinance as “a be-all and end-all that solves the housing problem in Brattleboro.”

Citing the town's lack of housing supply, low wages, and affordability in general, Quipp said that he was more interested personally in whether the ordinance would serve as a helpful tool to make the town an affordable place to live.

Board Clerk Ian Goodnow said that he would vote for the proposal because he felt it could help at least half the town's population who are also renters.

Board Chair Tim Wessel and Board Vice Chair Liz McLoughlin voted against sending the proposal to the public hearing phase.

“What is our goal?” McLoughlin asked. “To have affordable housing and more rental units in Brattleboro, or is it to control deposits?”

Wessel questioned whether other “tools” such as a loan program for either landlords or renters would better mitigate the town's housing issues. He believed the proposal would not be the right tool and would attack local housing problems like a “chain saw” rather than a “scalpel.”

VHFA Executive Director Maura Collins applauded the board's questioning the tools to best address the town's housing issues, noting that each community needs different approaches to meet its unique needs.

Collins said that lowering the cost barrier for tenants is great. She also added that municipalities tended to support proposals like limiting security deposits because they rarely impacted the town's budget.

“But, be realistic: this one tool is unlikely to make the town's housing problems go away,” she warned.

Brattleboro can answer whether the proposal to limit security deposits will help only after it holistically understands its housing problems, Collins said.

She recommended that towns begin with “being introspective” and conducting a housing needs assessment. The VHFA includes an assessment guide on its website. Collins added that a good assessment also engages the local community.

“You can't go just by the Census numbers,” she said.

After the assessment, towns should task a housing commission with addressing the needs or recommendations developed in the assessment and beyond, Collins said.

It's helpful to have an ongoing group that can monitor a program or initiative's success or adjust recommendations, she noted.

“This is rarely a one-and-done conversation,” Collins said.

The next step is to find a policy tool that can address the community's biggest housing problem - “but without knowing what is the biggest problem, then a policy might not be pulling the right lever,” she cautioned.

Of the proposal - and any housing tool, for that matter - Collins said, “It's important not to have unrealistic expectations.”

Vermont's housing challenges are too big for one policy to fix, she said. “We need a braided rope of policy options because the housing needs are so heavy.”

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