Brattleboro landlords who capitalize on a housing shortage: Shame on you

Brattleboro landlords who capitalize on a housing shortage: Shame on you

Gouging the people who are part of this community and driving them out of town will destroy the very community you wanted to be a part of, one property management professional writes

BRATTLEBORO — Dear Brattleboro residential landlords:

I know things are tight for you these days. All those tenants who couldn't pay rent because they couldn't go to work because the entire world was on must have put a pretty hole in your pocket. Now there's this bloody war raging on the other side of the globe, one that has caused the price of heating oil to skyrocket.

But this does not justify you capitalizing on a housing shortage. This does not justify you raising your rents to a criminal level.

I wonder why you chose to buy property in Brattleboro to begin with. Did you fall in love with the great silhouette of Mount Wantastiquet, the red-and-white steeples that dapple downtown? Were you wooed by the turn-of-the-century brick buildings pressed against the Connecticut River, the art deco movie theater, the smell of fresh scones drifting from Amy's Bakery?

Or perhaps you settled in Brattleboro because you really dug the grassroots spirit and the artistic soul that pulses through our little town.

Maybe you liked the funky murals painted in Harmony Lot, the musty bookstores on Elliot Street, the endless art galleries and small shops where one can purchase teacups, baby socks, fire pokers, hunting knives, and organic chocolates - all made by somebody you know. No doubt you were charmed by the friendly faces, by the shopkeepers, bartenders, cashiers, who call half their customers by first name.

I also bet you loved the idea of living somewhere with a thriving farmers' market and a cooperative grocery store, a place with citizens so dedicated to their local hardware store that Home Depot was forced to scurry out of town with its tail between its legs.

Yeah, that's the kind of community you wanted to be a part of.

Or maybe you were just born here, attended Brattleboro Union High School, volunteered at Harris Hill in February, ripped ticket stubs at the Latchis on summer break. In any case, you're still here now, so something about this community prompted you to stay.

Well, Brattleboro landlords, you're up to bat now. And to those of you who have shown integrity during these tough times, my hat is off.

But to the rest of you, and you know who you are - well, shame on you.

* * *

There's “passing along costs,” and then there's profiteering.

It's one thing to raise the rent 50 or 100 bucks to counter inflation - and, yes, the cost of heating fuel is outrageous. It's quite another to raise a person's rent 20 percent or 50 percent or to double it altogether (yes, this is really happening) simply because you know that person is so desperate for a place to live that they will pay whatever you ask.

And who can pay what you ask?

It appears they are folks who fled places like Boston and New York beginning in the spring of 2020. Folks in search of green, unpopulated pastures and the lowest COVID-19 infection rate in the country.

They are people with remote jobs and big-city paychecks that dwarf any kind of buying power the average citizen in this town possesses.

They are people who can easily drop 2,000 bucks a month on your crappy, mildew-infested two-bedroom while they wait to purchase an old farmhouse in Newfane –– for $20,000 over asking price.

* * *

Of course, the real shame, Brattleboro landlords, is what happens to those folks who just can't pay what you're asking.

These are the people who remember your name at the grocery store counter, at the farmers' market, behind the bar at Echo. They are also your cleaning lady, your mother's home health aide, your kid's elementary school teacher.

Where do you suggest these people go? Should they move to Bellows Falls, where the rents are cheaper and where they would have to commute every day to and from work?

You think your heating oil is expensive. Have you been to the gas station lately?

* * *

Brattleboro landlords, you might be thinking, “Now, hold up! This is a business, not a charity. I barely broke even this past winter after I paid my Dead River bill.”

I have two answers.

First, let us not forget that with this increasingly competitive rental market has come a great spike in your property value –– which means you are amassing capital at an unprecedented pace.

Furthermore, if you have acquired enough rental properties that renting apartments is your “business,” one or two winters of overpriced heating fuel will not bring you to ruin.

Second, all businesses take losses. You have reaped the spoils of your property investments thus far. Unless you plan to enter a clause into your current leases promising to lower rents once the price of heating fuel drops, your rationale is selfish and unfair. It serves only you while disenfranchising the average renter - permanently. In sum, you are broadening the gap of structural economic inequality.

“Not my problem,” you might say. “That's capitalism, baby!”

Then I would urge you to rethink why you still have roots in this town, what you admire about Brattleboro, and what separates it from the deluge of sterile, uninspired towns across this country where strip malls and big-box stores are boss.

If you think shopping local is important, if you think the world would be a cold desert were it not for music, literature, and the visual arts, or if you just prefer the taste of a Walker Farm tomato to anything you'd get at Walmart, then I wonder why you choose to raise the rent of the farmhand who grows that tomato. I wonder why you pull the rug out from under the artists who make Brattleboro the quirky and spirited town you love.

I would also urge you to rethink what it means to be a landlord.

* * *

I have come to the conclusion that our profession must hold itself to a higher standard.

You are probably aware that in addition to divorce and the death of a loved one, moving is considered among the top three most stressful life events.

Over the past two years, we have all witnessed more death than most see in a lifetime. Months in quarantine have bound thousands of relationships. This stress has also broken thousands of relationships, often resulting in people either leaving their homes or being forced out of them.

Last summer, after listing several apartments for rent, I received an onslaught of phone calls and emails, each with a story more upsetting than the last. Divorce was rampant. Black mold was everywhere. Also, the house fires.

But the most consistent reason for displacement was that the landlord was grossly raising the rent or selling the house.

Either way, the tenants had to go.

I talked to a young man whose paycheck could not afford him and his pregnant wife even a one-bedroom apartment in the town where they were both born and raised.

A local carpenter had been shelling out $70 a night to live at a run-down motel in town.

I listened to more than a few single mothers sob on the phone. Sometimes they screamed at me. Sometimes they begged.

Families of three and four were pleading to rent a one bedroom apartment, a 400-square-foot studio.

The list goes on.

* * *

Brattleboro landlords, you are also probably familiar with the timeless adage: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

You have a great responsibility to your fellow human beings and to this town. No doubt, things are tough these days, but it is precisely hard times like these when your choices become so terribly important.

You have the power now.

Please use it wisely and with tenderness.

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