Are there unintended consequences for inaction?

Are there unintended consequences for inaction?

We are in a housing crisis because of decades of inaction, and, just like the climate crisis, it is only going to get worse unless we do something now. Especially with evictions looming during COVID-19, this is no time to sit idly by or postpone needed changes.

BRATTLEBORO — At the Oct. 20 Selectboard meeting, the proposal to put a cap on move-in costs was halted and postponed indefinitely after suggestions from landlords to create a risk fund accessible through a loan or grant that would ultimately be paid out to property owners.

I am incredibly disappointed and insulted by the way this process has played out, and these feelings extend throughout Brattleboro's large tenant class.

We have been effectively silenced by the voices of a small group of persistent landlords and the Selectboard in their choice to allow this exceptional group to sway their actions (or non-actions).

* * *

On Sept. 1, the Tenants Union of Brattleboro was given a slot on the Selectboard meeting agenda to introduce this proposal. The meeting was packed full of other housing-related topics, and the Tenants Union's presentation was pushed to the later part of the session, when everyone's ears were already full of housing talk and people were losing steam.

Finally, after an important and lengthy discussion about purchasing rotary heads for mowers, TUB made its debut. Members offered well-researched, calculated, and compelling facts and arguments about why we need to limit outrageous up-front move-in costs.

The proposed ordinance was on the table for consideration at the Oct. 6 Selectboard meeting. Brattleboro Planning Director Sue Fillion opened the discussion by presenting statistics about the housing situation in Brattleboro. Fillon exposed that over 50 percent of renter households in the area are rent burdened, including over one quarter of renter households being severely rent burdened (paying 50 percent or more of their monthly income on rent).

That means that the majority of Brattleboro's tenants have to spend at least 90 percent to upwards of 150 percent of one month's income to move in, while most Vermont renters live paycheck-to-paycheck.

Although I remember TUB bringing this information up at the previous meeting, this simple fact seemed to be received with the gravity it deserves this time around.

Alongside a handful of local landlords, homeowners, and even a real estate agent, many tenants spoke out in support of the proposal.

Of course, a group of 10 or so reactionary landlords was also present to defend their right to overcharge tenants upon move-in. In a hilarious ending, Selectboard Vice Chair Liz McLoughlin discovered that minimum wage is too low and suggested everyone just vote for a $15 statewide minimum wage instead of acting to alleviate barriers to housing access for our lower-wage workers immediately.

Selectboard Chair Tim Wessel, a landlord of two units and star of a 2014 episode of House Hunters, of course, sided with the landlords.

After receiving a massive wave of undue public criticism from a handful of ill-mannered landlords, Brandie Starr, joined by Ian Goodnow and Daniel Quipp, voted in a narrow majority to move the proposed ordinance to a first reading.

* * *

On Oct. 20, the “first reading” and final meeting in this process so far, familiar faces from the recurring cast of outspoken landlords in opposition to the ordinance dominated the public comment.

Tim Wessel consistently granted them extra time to speak (as we've seen in previous meetings). When public comment was closed, several tenants still on stack were effectively barred from the conversation, and their input was not considered.

Over the course of the Selectboard's discussion, Daniel Quipp withdrew his support for the proposed ordinance, siding with Tim Wessel in echoing concerns of unintended consequences.

Liz McLaughlin also suggested indefinitely postponing the pursuit of the ordinance until a thorough local housing study is conducted.

Daniel advocated for an “alternative” to the proposed ordinance involving keeping everything how it is and instead creating some kind of special tenant aid fund to cover unaffordable move-in costs - one might even call them extreme move-in costs, seeing as over one quarter of Brattleboro renters have to pay at least 150 percent of their monthly income to just move into a home - but I guess that's just my opinion.

* * *

The now-notorious swing vote threw a wrench in progress and joined Liz and Tim on Team Scalpel.

Daniel pulled a similar stunt at the budget meeting a few months ago in casting the deciding vote to push the current budget through despite an unprecedented flood of community calls for revision.

At the budget meeting and yet again at the “first reading” of TUB's ordinance (which was never actually read that evening), Daniel apologized for the consequence of rescinding his support.

An apology does not absolve you of the responsibility to take action when the people of your town come together to alert you that their needs are not being met.

Ultimately, the ordinance came to a standstill around requests for more research into the potential effects of this ordinance and suggestions of creating some kind of risk fund that either tenants or landlords would have access to in order to afford or recoup unaffordable rent-related expenses or losses.

* * *

Our housing crisis is long standing and deep, but especially now during COVID-19, non-action on this proposal could have devastating consequences.

Once the eviction moratorium ends, thousands of struggling tenants in Vermont will be evicted in the midst of a public health crisis for missing rent payments during the pandemic. How are they supposed to come up with first-last-security? Are they all at once supposed to apply to some aid fund and wait until they maybe get approved for means to access basic shelter?

Asking that people vulnerable to losing housing subject themselves to yet another time-consuming paperwork process and waiting period to be granted approval to exist safely is not a solution at all.

At the latest meeting, it was illuminating to hear the language around a risk fund morph between “a pot of money” that landlords just can grab from to a “program” with an application process for tenants.

While members of the Selectboard may be envisioning a similar form to each of these risk fund ideas, the language around who deserves access to means is very telling of some of our town leaders' priorities.

* * *

I implore you, Selectboard members, in your ongoing research, to engage with the recent 2020-2024 VT Housing Needs Assessment, published by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development in February.

Don't let the 300 pages scare you. Someone who doesn't care to know how their average and below-average constituents are doing should not make decisions on our behalf.

Liz McLaughlin's excuse that no action can be taken until a current housing study is conducted is either evidence that she is unaware of this comprehensive study or that she hopes to postpone TUB's proposed ordinance by ignoring this document.

Or perhaps Liz has a point - that we do need a newer housing study, since this one was published just before COVID-19 hit us. I anticipate that since the pandemic, current numbers will show more tenant poverty, more property sales, and more well-off homeowners, as an unprecedented amount of people are out of work and we've seen a surge of out-of-state buyers.

* * *

Have the unintended consequences of a loan fund been adequately explored?

We're not talking about putting a commemorative rock somewhere. We're talking about creating a formalized debt program that I presume taxpayers pay for and landlords (who directly make money off of working people and are relatively secure in their investments, even if they're not millionaires) benefit from.

It's true, #NotAllLandlords are rolling in money and think of their tenants merely as a means to pay off their investments! That indeed is what is so remarkable about the Selectboard's amicable response to the recurring landlords' presence. A majority now of the Selectboard has chosen to listen to this very narrow group of people who are not representative of most landlords in town.

Most of them are not the mom-and-pop landlords and working community members they claim to be. They own more than a handful of units (Jason “Tesla” Cooper, Steve Heim), they talk about coming from landlord lineages or having inherited several rental properties (the Wright family, Kate O'Connor and Kerri O'Connor Amidon, Brett Holmes), and some live out of state (Ibrahim Dahlstrom-Hakki). Some don't even have mortgages and have stated outright that they would not be impacted by the ordinance (Ralph Buchanan).

Not all landlords oppose the TUB proposal - in fact, many have voiced support for it. Why does the Selectboard listen so eagerly to this group of outliers?

* * *

Some brief research into landlord risk mitigation funds in other towns and cities in the U.S., which are rare but do exist, shows that these programs are created for landlords to use. It appears that these risk funds are never set up with the expectation that the tenant will take on the landlord's risk or that the tenant has to apply for a loan.

They function to encourage landlords to rent to tenants who have a harder time affording the cost of rent and are funded either by the cities or by private groups including property management firms as well as established groups advocating for the rights of individuals experiencing homelessness.

Funds are made available to landlords who take on a more “risky” tenant (mostly veterans and people experiencing chronic homelessness) to cover unpaid rent and damage expenses.

What's even more interesting is the data on how often these risk funds are used.

The reactions to TUB's proposal by this vocal but small group of landlords might lead people to believe that it is common that landlords lose months of rent due to non-payments or excessive damage.

The data on four established risk funds in the U.S. published by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, suggests otherwise.

• Denver's landlord risk mitigation fund started in 2015 and has seen only one claim since its start.

• In Seattle, a risk fund has been around since 2009 and, while several claims have been paid out, funds still remain from the initial investment.

• Another established in Portland in 2014 has been used only once for a $1,000 amount.

• Another risk fund started the same year in Orlando has never been used to date.

* * *

Financial struggle is not reserved for tenants alone - a lot can go wrong with a mortgage or multiple mortgages, and homeowners can have their houses foreclosed on, which is especially troubling in these uncertain times.

That recent ACCD Housing Needs Assessment does a great job of exposing both tenants' and homeowners' financial struggles in Vermont. Make no mistake, the landlords who have consistently attended the Selectboard meetings are generally not the struggling homeowners represented in this data.

I came away from reading the assessment realizing the entangled complexity of our housing situation in Windham County and statewide. If you want to address this issue as a whole, you will need a chainsaw - and a lot of time and energy.

Tim got one thing right in the Viewpoint he wrote last month and still loves to reference: housing issues are enormous structural issues!

If you must cling smugly to weird medical analogies, Tim, I'll say we don't need a bandage; we need to cauterize the wound before it gets even more infected. This proposal gives us a chance to make a significant, albeit minor, change to our system in a lasting and meaningful way. Take action, or risk the consequences of your inaction.

Look at where a refusal to take action has gotten us with the environment - we are in a full-blown climate catastrophe! We need emissions regulations just as badly as we need housing regulations. Without them, we will (continue to) see conditions worsen for everyone, with poorer communities being most severely impacted.

We are in a housing crisis because of decades of inaction, and, just like the climate crisis, it is only going to get worse unless we do something now.

Especially with evictions looming during COVID-19, this is no time to sit idly by or postpone needed changes. Currently, 6 percent, or 36,000 people, statewide are at risk for eviction - that means nearly 400 Brattleboro tenants are likely up for eviction at the end of the moratorium, and I doubt they are going to have three (or more) months' rent lying around to find themselves new housing.

When people are struggling, we must make adjustments to allow them to live according to their needs. We all deserve access to safe shelter as a basic right, not something we have to apply for and be granted.

So put on your chainsaw pants and get to work!

It doesn't pay like a doctor's salary, but don't be shy to do your share of the hard labor that workers do for this town.

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