Charter change will only exacerbate the problems with the local rental market

For the not-so-good tenants and the safety and comfort of neighbors, property owners need ‘no-cause evictions’ as a management tool — and as a fundamental right

BRATTLEBORO — Brattleboro has thousands of rental housing units and hundreds of housing providers.

The providers who bought their units as investments are overwhelmingly local people — middle-class people — who generally own one, two, four, maybe six, units in a building or two. They often depend on the rents as their means of livelihood or as supplements to their Social Security.

The recent publicity about the Westbrook apartment complex, purchased by a Boston-based corporation, in West Brattleboro is an anomaly. While some in town are distraught over the prospect of big corporations coming here and buying all the rental housing, that is not the case, nor will it ever be. Big corporations are not interested in small buildings. Money driven, they only want larger complexes, where they can benefit from economies of scale.

The proposed Article 2 to be voted by the town on Tuesday, March 7 is geared toward the Westbrook development. It is a direct reaction about the people who are being asked to leave Westbrook, but this change in the town charter would ban no-cause evictions townwide. It would punish innocent housing providers because of one bad apple, so to speak.

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The term “no-cause eviction” is extremely misleading, describing a non-renewal of a lease at its expiration.

A lease is generally written for a one-year term. It is a contract. At the end of the year, the tenant can choose not to renew. And the landlord can choose not to renew the tenant.

If Article 2 were to be adopted, many housing providers would no longer be able to end a lease at the termination date. Tenants would become tenants for life. Someone equated this to a marriage without the possibility of divorce.

Further, these “no-cause evictions” are not for no cause. Housing providers do not ask good tenants to leave their properties. They want good tenants. Instead, housing providers use no-cause evictions as a tool to remove troublesome tenants from buildings when their leases expire.

No-cause evictions provide a way for housing providers to remove drug dealers, hoarders, tenants who behave belligerently to other tenants, tenants who make loud noise at all hours, smokers, tenants who damage units, and tenants who otherwise behave badly. Housing providers have a myriad of anecdotes about bad tenants. The problems are real.

By removing the troublesome tenants, housing providers protect the remaining tenants in the building. Housing providers take seriously the need to provide safe housing for the quiet enjoyment of all residents. The no-cause eviction method of parting ways allows housing providers to do that. This method of parting ways has the added benefit of leaving no negative record on the tenant’s rental history.

Beyond protecting the responsible tenants in their buildings, housing providers are protecting the adjacent neighborhood by controlling behavior in their buildings. Aberrant behavior can affect neighbors, who have little or no ability to stop it.

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Proponents of Article 2 say that landlords should use “just cause” if they want to ask a tenant to leave.

“Just cause” requires housing providers to go to court, and it takes months — if not a year or more — to get a hearing.

At these hearings, tenants can say, “Prove I deal drugs,” “I stopped smoking,” or “I don’t make noise in the middle of the night.”

While waiting for the hearing, the affected tenant can easily exact retribution against the housing provider and the other tenants in the building.

And there is nothing the housing provider can do about it.

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If Article 2 passes, local housing providers would be forced to screen prospective tenants to higher standards, making it even more difficult to get an apartment in Brattleboro. Housing providers would raise rents in anticipation of expensive repairs and court costs.

The passage of Article 2 would create a downward spiral in neighborhood conditions and real estate values.

Local housing providers would lose interest in taking on more buildings. They would look to sell. With local housing providers unable to remove troublesome tenants, neighboring tenants would move out of buildings for their own protection.

The incomes of the properties would be reduced. Then housing providers might not have the funds to make necessary repairs and buildings would fall into disrepair. The blight would affect neighboring properties — and the town in general.

The fundamental problem with housing in Brattleboro is that there is not enough of it. Alienating housing providers will only exacerbate the problem. It is disheartening and ironic that the very people who are providing much needed housing are being attacked, rather than supported. And it is a basic economic principle that increased supply lowers prices and provides choice.

Instead of banning no-cause evictions, we should look to creative solutions — real solutions — to the housing crisis. We — the state, the town, nonprofits, attorneys, developers, contractors and housing providers — should work together to develop more housing.

Perhaps there could be a state development fund created for this purpose. Perhaps legal restrictions on housing development could be relaxed. Perhaps the town could act as the developer. Perhaps there could be tax abatements. Perhaps we could consider new forms of housing, such as dormitory style housing with drop-in kitchens or tiny houses.

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On a broader front, the middle class in Brattleboro is under assault. Our merchants feel it with the vandalism and robberies they have been experiencing. The crime rate in town, including murders, has increased significantly. Now our housing providers are being confronted with Article 2, which would restrict their ability to control their very own property. Do we really want to drive the middle class out of Brattleboro?

If Article 2 passes, we might as well put out a sign to drug dealers. It could say, “Welcome to Brattleboro, where the police cannot arrest drug dealers and housing providers cannot remove drug dealers from their apartments.”

Is that what we want?

I implore the voters of Brattleboro to vote down Article 2 on March 7.

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