Brattleboro caps upfront costs for tenants

After months of contentious discussion, an ordinance goes into effect in February

BRATTLEBORO — After months of public input, staff investigation, and legal advice, the Selectboard has approved an ordinance that will limit the amount of money that landlords can require tenants to pay upfront.

The ordinance, approved on Dec. 15, limits advance costs to rent housing to the equivalent of first month's rent and a security deposit. The security deposit must total no more than the amount of one month's rent.

Proponents of the ordinance say it will increase access to rental housing for tenants on limited incomes. Opponents, however, worry that the ordinance will hurt more than help by increasing financial risks for landlords, thus creating incentives for them to raise rents for tenants.

Others have questioned whether the policy will address the root causes of the town's housing issues, such as not enough housing and its cost to residents of a state that in general has lower wages than its neighbors.

During public comment, Ivan Hennessy noted that the policy does not change the amount of money landlords receive. Instead, it changes when the money is received.

The “last month's rent” will move from an upfront payment to being paid in the final month of a person's tenancy, he said.

People with enough money to keep the equivalent of three months' rent in savings is “not a universal cross section of society,” Hennessy added. As such, the current practice of collecting the equivalent of three full months of rent affects only those who struggle financially.

“It's really good news that we might be addressing and reducing that discrimination,” he said.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said the ordinance should go into effect on Feb. 14, 2021.

According to Town Attorney Bob Fisher, the ordinance applies to new leases signed after that date. Tenants with existing leases will be grandfathered.

Should a landlord sign a new lease with an existing tenant, however, then a landlord will need to return the equivalent of one month's rent if originally collected under the original lease.

Fisher added that the ordinance goes into effect 60 days after the board's approval. Those who wish to bring the ordinance to a town-wide vote have 45 days organize a petition. The petition must have signatures from 5 percent of the town's registered voters.

A split board

Last week, after the board held a public hearing on the second reading of the proposal, board Clerk Ian Goodnow made the motion to approve the rental ordinance. He has supported the change since the Tenants Union of Brattleboro (TUB) proposed the ordinance earlier this year.

Fellow board members Brandie Starr and Daniel Quipp also spoke in favor of the ordinance.

“Housing is a human right,” Starr said, “and my version of good governance is to work from the most vulnerable up.”

People will always need help, she added, and community sustainability starts with having a solid foundation.

Goodnow, Starr, and Quipp voted in favor of the policy change, with Chair Tim Wessel and Vice-Chair Liz McLoughlin dissenting.

Both Wessel and McLoughlin have consistently questioned whether the ordinance would do more harm than good to both renters and landlords.

In Wessel's opinion, disagreement around the ordinance focuses on what policy will best meet residents' needs. No one on the board disagrees that tenants' needs exist, he said.

To landlords, Wessel said, “Don't give up being a good steward in your community.”

He also asked landlords to keep their rental properties as full-time units, rather than shifting to short-term rentals such as Airbnb. He also hoped local landlords wouldn't sell to out-of-the-area owners who, in his opinion, have less of a stake in the community.

McLoughlin has said that the ordinance will not address the root causes of the town's tight - and, in many cases, expensive - housing market.

Easing the burden on renters

In its proposal to the board, dated Aug. 18, members of TUB wrote, “The enormous costs of securing a new place to live is an ever-rising hurdle to housing people in our town.”

“Access to affordable housing is one of the largest obstacles facing renters today,” the members added, “and though the coronavirus pandemic has catalyzed many preexisting issues, we need to treat these issues as longstanding and, without mitigation, persistent. Limiting the cost of required deposits is a simple, immediate, and effective step in this direction.”

Town Planning Director Sue Fillion, at the board's request, presented data on the town's rental market. In a memo dated Sept. 29, she outlined data that mirrored much of what TUB's proposal asserted.

Federal guidelines define affordable housing as costing 30 percent of a household's income, said Fillion, who noted that 50 percent of town residents are renters. Of that 50 percent, more than half spend above 30 percent of their income on housing, she said.

“This is not good governance,” said Real Estate Agent Dan Normandeau, a principal of a trust that owns five multi-unit buildings in town, lambasted the Selectboard.

Asking why the town hadn't formed a study committee or gathered data, Normandeau claimed that everything said during the board meetings amounted to “anecdotal opinion” rather than facts.

“You have not studied the problem,” he said. “At best, you've studied the solution.”

Consultant Shea Witzberger, part of the team contracted to guide the town's Community Safety Review Process, countered Normandeau.

The landlords who have spoken to her and her colleagues say the ordinance could impact them financially, Witzberger said. Yet, the lack of housing, or being homeless, makes people vulnerable to a myriad of situations, including violence, sexual assault, emotional distress, and, in 2020, COVID-19.

“Those amounts of risk are not equal,” Witzberger said. “Housing is something we all deserve.”

More data coming

Brattleboro may soon have more data about its housing.

Fillion informed the board that the town has received grant funding to conduct a housing study, which she said might be completed as early as the summer.

The study will gather data on the number and type of housing units in town as well as demographic and income data. The study is slated to highlight root issues impacting the town's housing stock, the market, and residents.

Fillion said she also expects the study to include policy recommendations.

In the meantime, advocates for the ordinance praised its passage.

“This is a big discussion that touches so many parts of this community,” Goodnow said.

TUB member Dory Hamm said the ordinance is only a piece of “making the town affordable for everyone.”

“It is a really important step, but this is small compared to what we have to do,” he said.

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