Brattleboro landlord Susan Bellville shows a cell phone photo of a drawer full of used needles and drug paraphernalia found in a vacated apartment.
Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons
Brattleboro landlord Susan Bellville shows a cell phone photo of a drawer full of used needles and drug paraphernalia found in a vacated apartment.

Cause or no cause?

In this overheated rental market, Brattleboro voters will consider a measure next month to prevent tenants from being summarily removed from apartments. Meanwhile, landlords contend that the proposed charter change will complicate their removal of problem tenants.

BRATTLEBORO — There is uncertainty brewing in the town’s complex landlord-tenant relationship as voters prepare to decide on an amendment to the town charter.

As proposed, landlords — with some exceptions, including owners who live in their duplexes and triplexes and who rent accessory units on their property — would be prevented from evicting tenants without cause. Rent increases would be capped at 12%. [See sidebar, A3.]

The tightness of the housing market means that an eviction, for cause or no cause, can lead to homelessness.

Brattleboro currently has a shortfall of 500 housing units, according to the town planning office. That boils down to a vacancy rate between 0.5% and 2.8%, according to three separate surveys looked at by the town.

“A rental housing market is typically considered healthy when its vacancy rates are between 4% and 6%,” Planning Director Sue Fillion wrote in a memo to the Selectboard in 2020.

Economically vulnerable tenants are looking to the proposed charter change as a way to add some stability to their lives and ensure that they can keep a roof over their heads.

Meanwhile, landlords say the proposed charter change would remove the leverage they need for removing drug dealers and tenants who create problems on their property — and their control over who can live on their turf.

“This takes away landlord rights,” said landlord and property manager Susan Bellville.

There does not seem to be a middle ground.

Just cause?

Voters will have a chance to weigh in on the controversy by Australian ballot at the Annual Town Election on Tuesday, March 7.

Essentially, the charter amendment question will ask the town to “provide protections for residential tenants from evictions without ‘just cause,’” where “just cause” includes: “a tenant’s material breach of a written rental agreement; a tenant’s violation of state statutes regulating tenant obligations in residential rental agreements; non-payment of rent; and a tenant’s failure to accept written, reasonable, good faith renewal terms.”

If the amendment passes, it will have to go to the Legislature, where some of the wording might be changed, and then go on to Gov. Phil Scott for his signature.

The amendment is similar to one passed in Burlington last year; it came out of the Legislature, only to be vetoed by Scott. The push to override his veto failed by one vote.

This year, Brattleboro is joining Essex and Winooski in proposing similar changes to their respective town charters, and Burlington will reintroduce the amendment that failed last year.

“Just cause” eviction reform has been passed in California, Washington, and Oregon.

Proponents of the charter change here contend that it is not “just cause” when landlords are throwing tenants out because they want to gentrify their buildings and either turn apartments into high-paying short-term rentals (such as Airbnb) or into luxury apartments that can rent for over $2,000 a month in Brattleboro’s overheated housing market.

The amendment would still allow a landlord to evict a tenant in order to upgrade the building — but with many restrictions.

“This is more than just a little onerous,” said property manager Sally Fegley. “If you want to do an upgrade to the property, and you need to remove someone in order to do that, they want you to pay a penalty to relocate the tenant to another unit. And if you have [another] unit available in your building or in your inventory, just make it available to them.”

“And also, there’s also the provision when you put that unit back on the market, you’re supposed to offer it to the same tenant,” she continued.

“Now, I just asked three people to move out of one unit that I own because it was so disgusting,” Fegley said. “I have to literally spend about $15,000 to fix it up. And I’m supposed to offer them the opportunity to come back? And do that again?”

The amendment also calls for a 12% cap on rent increases and has a provision excluding from “just cause” the “expiration of a rental agreement as sole grounds for termination of tenancy.”

Property managers and landlords say this means they will be forced to renew leases whether they want to or not.

But Zoe Cunningham-Cook, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid and one of the organizers of the charter amendment explained that in general, as things stand now, “landlords cannot evict for no cause during the lease term if there is a written lease. They can evict for cause at any point.”

“The basis for terminating for cause are nonpayment of rent and breach of rental agreement, which include failure to comply with material terms of the lease or criminal/illegal drug/violent activity,” Cunningham-Cook continued.

However, tenants who participate in the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) can be evicted for just cause only when they have a lease agreement, she said.

Tenants who qualify for Section 8 pay 30% of their income, and the voucher covers the difference.

“Voucher holders cannot be evicted for no cause during the initial lease term,” Cunningham-Cook said. “They can be evicted for no cause after the initial lease term.”

Situation ‘dire’ for renters

The Vermont chapter of the nonprofit organization Rights & Democracy (RAD) supports just-cause eviction.

“The situation for renters in Vermont is dire,” said RAD’s housing and justice organizer, Tom Proctor. “Renters make up about one-third of all Vermont state residents, and it’s not a good market right now. We have historically low vacancy rates across the state. What that means is, if you get evicted, you’re essentially homeless.”

“It manifests in several ways,” Proctor said.

“First, there’s no way you can live in the town you’ve lived in for however many years. Your kids may go to school in that town. You may work in that town, and may not be able to continue in your job. In some cases you become homeless and have to live out of motels, cars, or tents. And this is affecting a wide range of people.”

Part of the problem is what Proctor called “a housing gold rush” following the recent Covid-19 pandemic.

“House prices have risen, property taxes have risen, and landlords are either evicting tenants to find richer tenants or selling their houses to corporate landlords who immediately jack up the rents,” he said. “As a result, we have seen the homeless population in Vermont rise 125 percent in the last two years. So we need to give tenants protections if they stick to the rules.”

“Sticking to the rules” means paying their rent on time, not being too noisy, taking care of their apartments and, in general, being a good tenant.

But even if tenants play by the rules, they can still be ousted if a landlord wants to increase the rent or turn the property into a vacation rental property.

“Tenants are being evicted and made homeless or having enormous mental strain on their lives [and they] haven’t broken the rules,” Proctor said. “Tenants who have paid their rent on time, been courteous neighbors and upstanding members of their communities. This has also put enormous strain on our public services, hospitals, schools, police, and our court system.”

Section 8 issues

In the Brattleboro Housing Partnership’s seven housing projects, more than 150 households in the 298 apartments use Section 8 vouchers.

According to Executive Director Christine Hazzard, “We closed our program because we had a long waiting list. However, Vermont State Housing Authority has opened up their waitlist with the same subsidy.”

Even in public housing, people can be evicted for cause, Hazzard said.

“We’re under constraints,” Hazzard said. “In public housing, we need to have a cause for eviction. We can’t just stop their lease because it’s expired. There has to be a severe reason and at that point we have to go through a formal eviction process in the courts. So this amendment won’t affect us.”

People who have apartments through the Brattleboro Housing Partnership do not tend to move out.

“We haven’t seen a lot of movement,” Hazzard said. “We haven’t had many people move because the landlord did not renew their lease.”

Marta Gossage, who wrote the Brattleboro charter amendment, said she was catapulted into activism after watching a friend be evicted for no reason.

“The thesis is that someone who has always paid their rent on time and who has done nothing wrong should not lose their home,” Gossage said. “We have legislation so the most vulnerable in our society are protected from losing their home unjustly. We have laws against price gouging. We have laws against renting an unsafe home.

“If we don’t regulate capitalism, we tend to end up in a situation like in the game Monopoly. It was created as an illustration of unjust capitalism, where there’s only one winner — one person has everything. Regulated capitalism allows us to make it so that ownership of capital and property is regulated, so that it doesn’t create either suffering or unfair conditions.”

Near to the center of this struggle is the 48-unit Westbrook Court Apartments at 498 Marlboro Rd. in West Brattleboro. Late last year, the building was bought by BSAG Realty, a real estate investment company based in Boston.

The company is proposing to build 70 more apartments on the property, but many of its current tenants, including Section 8 tenants, are losing their homes as the new owners look to upgrade the apartments.

Critics are charging that the upgrades are crossing a line and targeting wealthier tenants, a process that will lead to gentrification and move that housing out of reach of those who had lived there.

According to Gossage, chosen current residents are being evicted because the corporate owners are not renewing leases.

“I know of 12 people for certain but it could be as high as 20, all Section 8 or on different forms of housing assistance,” Gossage said. “What we believe is happening is the corporate landlords want to remove all the residents who are paying reasonable rents and replace them with residents who can pay a lot more.”

Gossage asserted that for the most vulnerable people in the rental housing market — people “who are seniors or have disabilities or have no place to go” — this practice is making people homeless.

“Even when you’re hooked up with the right services, you’re making phone calls every day, checking Front Porch Forum [...] and other places where apartments are listed,” she said.

“And when places become available, the rent is 50 or 60% above what you can afford,” Gossage said. “And even if you could afford it, with 30 or more applications per open apartment, landlords will pick the ones with the highest income and highest credit score.”

Landlords and moral compasses

Gossage began to sob when telling stories about the individual tenants she has met who are facing homelessness — people in wheelchairs, people who need oxygen, a man who needs major surgery that will put him in a wheelchair for life, a single mother with a daughter in high school who was not able to find housing in Brattleboro and was forced to take a place in Keene and leave her daughter staying with a friend.

One person who is losing her home is Damaris Mills, a Section 8 tenant at Westbrook Court, who wrote to The Commons about her situation.

“I am hopeful that the town of Brattleboro does not have in its plans to throw people out into the street, so some corporation can come into town, bully the locals, kick people out of their homes whether or not they are good tenants who pay their rents on time and don’t cause any trouble,” Mills wrote.

“BSAG Properties bought Westbrook Court in September of 2021,” Mills continued. “I knew we were in trouble when they came in here like gangbusters.”

She cited “the shocking notices found under our doors that a dozen or more families got from BSAG Properties.”

With those notices, selected tenants, she said, were, with no explanation or rationale, given “60 to 90 days to move out! In the middle of the winter, no less!”

“Folks who were not asked to leave had their rent raised exponentially!” Mills wrote. “Plus they had to add more money to their original security deposits.”

“But here’s the kicker,” she said. “The majority of us who got those ‘get out’ notices were low-income and several of us were on some sort of housing assistance like HUD Section 8, or VEWRAP [the Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program] or some sort of assistance[...]. This majority were mostly handicapped in some way, and/or elderly.”

“Needless to say, people freaked out!” Mills said.

“When Covid shut the world down, I had to leave my job because I was high risk,” she continued. “Because of that, I lost out on the opportunity to finally purchase my own home.”

But, she said, “several of us had each other for support. In other words, we were a community. A community that cared and watched out for their neighbors.”

In contrast, Mills accused her landlord of having “no moral compass. Not an ounce of passionate humanity for his fellow human beings.”

This lack of compassion upsets Gossage.

“We as a society recognize that a stable home is necessary to live a life,” she said. “We have created state laws that govern what is a reasonable reason for an eviction. Those include illegal activity, noise violations, and violations of lease conditions — if it’s a non-smoking unit and you smoke you have violated a lease condition.

“That’s how you get folks out who have broken the rules. For cause. The minority of evictions end up in court. Most of the time, a landlord serves a tenant an eviction notice, the tenant is angry, but they leave. They might fight, but most leave.

“As a society and as a country, we have written well-thought-out standards,” Gossage said. “We’ve created a system to be fair, so people don’t lose their housing unfairly.”

[The Commons reached out to Gravel & Shea PC — the legal firm in Burlington listed in corporate records for BSAG as the company’s registered agent — but received no response by press time.]

Local landlords struggle, too

Brattleboro landlords have a different take on the situation.

Although Bellville sympathizes with tenants who lose their leases and have to leave their rental units, she still does not see the amendment as anything but a rights grab.

“Quite frankly, I am incredibly distressed at what’s happening at Westbrook Court,” Bellville said. “I have a brother who lives there. And I understand that his rent went up over $500 a month, which he can’t afford. So I get it. I don’t feel that it’s fair.”

But, she said, the proposed charter change is “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Bellville, along with Windham Property Management co-owner Sally Fegley and landlord Jaki Reis recently met with The Commons to describe some of the bad situations they have been involved in with unpleasant tenants.

Fegley co-owns Windham Property Management. She and her husband manage 50 rental units in Brattleboro, plus Morningside Commons and Arbor Hill Commons. Bellville manages 17 downtown apartments and four commercial spaces for a property owner, as well as owning three buildings with approximately 17 tenants. She also manages a three-unit for someone else. Reis manages eight units in Brattleboro and owns a four-family house.

At the meeting, Bellville scrolled through photos on her cell phone of blood-splattered walls, used syringes in bottles, and urine-soaked carpets. One photo showed the foam back of a couch with a section carved out to conceal a knife.

The three women told of tenants who smoked so heavily in nonsmoking apartments that the nicotine-stained apartment had to be fumigated — at great cost — before the unit could be rented anew.

They talked about having couples involved in domestic violence. About tenants who have threatened landlords. About one violent guy who might have cut the brake lines of a neighboring tenant who complained about him. About a tenant so stoned on marijuana that they got the munchies, started to cook something, fell asleep, and set their apartment on fire. About the tenant who kept the windows open in the winter, which drove up heating costs for the building. About having to clean up pet urine and feces. About noise. And especially, about losing good tenants because of bad tenants.

They don’t even like the terminology.

“It’s a complex issue, and the nomenclature really hurts us,” Fegley said. “‘No-cause eviction’ sounds different than what it really is. These aren’t really evictions. At the end of the lease terms, the tenant can leave. Or, the way the law reads now, the housing providers can ask the tenants to leave.”

“And generally, housing providers don’t ask tenants to leave unless there’s a reason. So there is a cause. So to say that it’s a no-cause eviction is completely misleading.

“They are lease terminations, probably for reason,” Fegley said. “And the reasons could be there’s drug dealing going on.”

The landlords said they needed no-cause evictions to get drug dealers and drug users out of their apartments. They complain that the new amendment would prevent them from getting rid of a tenant who was selling drugs, using drugs, or behaving in manners that cause other tenants to complain about them.

“If a tenant is behaving badly, no-cause eviction is a way for us, at the end of the lease, to say, ’Sorry, this isn’t working out, we’re not going to renew your lease and you have to move on,’” Fegley said.

“The advantage to these tenants is that nothing negative goes on their records. If they get evicted by the court, it goes on theirrecord, and it becomes very difficult for them to find housing. So, in a way, no-cause eviction is a very gentle way of parting company and saving the building for the rest of the tenants.”

Fegley said the no cause/just cause confrontation aims a dagger at the middle class.

“Most of the landlords are people like me, people like Sue, people like Jaki, who own a couple of units or manage a couple of units, maybe a dozen units,” Fegley said. “We’re not conglomerates, we’e not corporate. We’re Brattleboro people, middle-class people trying to make a living. Some of the owners we manage for use their properties for their retirement income.”

“Westbrook Court is different,” she conceded. “But that’s not the majority of us.”

“We acknowledge there are a couple of culprits,” Fegley continued. “But there are hundreds of the rest of us. This amendment would be very detrimental.”

The amendment would also be detrimental to the good tenants in town, Fegley said.

“What would happen is that landlords would have to become really, really strict as to who they let into their buildings,” she said. “Because once you’ve brought somebody into your building, there’ll be no way to get them out. So what landlords are saying, ‘Oh, you accept a tenant, you have a tenant for life, whether the tenant is dealing drugs or being belligerent to other tenants in the building or making noise in the middle of the night or hoarding or, you know, whatever.’ When you read the surface of the warning, it sounds very compelling. But when you know the background, it’s really very different.”

Taking a tenant to court in order to evict them for cause is a long and potentially costly process.

Court dockets are backed up. Often there is no legal proof of misdeeds. Or the tenant retaliates. Or the landlord cannot afford the legal fees, which range in the thousands of dollars.

“It’s very, very difficult to get evictions to the courts,” Fegley said. “If you say they’ve been smoking, they can always say, ‘We stopped smoking’ Or ‘I know I wasn’t making noise in the middle of the night.’ Or ‘No, I didn’t beat my wife’ even if you know that’s exactly what he did.”

“Once you start the process and bring a tenant to court, you’ve got to give them 60 days notice of the eviction,” she continued. “They’ve got 60 days in which to destroy your building, not pay rent, or do whatever they want. And sometimes they don’t even end up in court. But if they do, you don’t always get them out anyway. It’s not guaranteed.”

A middle ground?

The three property managers had a list of possible ways to help both landlords and good tenants without a change to the Brattleboro Town Charter. Among them:

• Setting up a lower court to handle housing issues, something along the lines of a traffic court.

• Increasing the housing stock is a top priority. With more housing available, the prices might go down.

• Being creative with housing projects, such as the ones reusing old buildings or motels that have been developed by the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.

• Setting up “pods,” or groups of tiny houses, to increase the housing stock and get homeless people off the streets.

• Offering training to landlords and property managers.

• Creating a coalition of landlords, tenants, the police, the health department, mental health services, and developers.

“The solution is not to penalize property and housing providers who are doing a good job,” Fegley said. “You want to help the people who are doing a good job, and then address the problem situations. But this will penalize the good landlord.”

“It’s all about keeping people safe,” Reis said.

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