One of the properties in Brattleboro owned by the Reffi family, who own and manage 20 low-income apartments in town. “In the past four years, we’ve only had movement on two of our Brattleboro apartments,” Mark Reffi said.
Ellen Pratt/The Commons
One of the properties in Brattleboro owned by the Reffi family, who own and manage 20 low-income apartments in town. “In the past four years, we’ve only had movement on two of our Brattleboro apartments,” Mark Reffi said.

After the motel — one month later

For one working couple, the search for a place to live has been a nonstop exercise in frustration

BRATTLEBORO — With only three days remaining in their 21-day, maximum-allowed stay at Fort Dummer State Park's campground, Kayla and Travis Lavonte and their two cats are scrambling to find shelter - again.

"We have to leave for seven nights but then we plan to come back," Kayla said.

The couple has been camping since being evicted from the Quality Inn in mid-June. They are among the 70 households sheltered in six local motels who lost access to the pandemic-era emergency shelter program on July 1.

The motel program was extended until April 1, 2024 for 123 local households who meet eligibility criteria, including families with children, the elderly, domestic abuse survivors, and those on federal disability.

Kayla and Travis plan to pay for a hotel room until they can get back to the campground, which, at $24 per night, is the "cheapest place around," Kayla said. "It's gonna be way too expensive in a motel, but it's just for a week."

"I work with a guy at Hannaford - he and his girlfriend were also at the Quality Inn - and they went to the Molly Stark campground [a state park in Wilmington] after their 21 days at Fort Dummer," Kayla said. "But we can't go there because it's 25 minutes away and our vehicle will not make it back and forth to work six days a week."

They use their 23-year-old car mainly for storage.

Camping while working is rough, Kayla said.

"Working in the meat department, I get bleach all over me," she said. "I come home, my shoes are soaked, my socks are soaked, my pants are soaked. I smell like bleach, I have fish all over me. So even if I take a shower before I go to work I have to take a shower when I get home from work."

And "none of that is ideal while camping," she said.

"Don't get me wrong - the bathrooms here are extremely clean, but I pay $1.50 a day in quarters to take a shower, and it doesn't seem like a lot until you calculate it. You know, I work five days a week so that's $1.50, five days a week. Maybe I won't take a shower on one of the days I have off so we can save a little bit of money, but then it's not just me that pays $1.50. Travis, too. So, $3 a day just to take a shower."

Asked how they fared in the recent rainstorms, Kayla said that they "lost rain jackets, sleeping bags, a comforter, pillows, blankets, and our mattress" after water breached a leaky tent that they got from Groundworks.

"After the rain, we paid $90 to buy a better tent and set that up in a drier area," she said.

The search for housing continues

Kayla and Travis are among the hundreds of households estimated to need housing in the area. According to Brattleboro's 2022 Housing Action Plan "there is a pressing need for over 500 housing units in Brattleboro, of which nearly 60% are needed for those with incomes under $50,000."

"Since we've been here [at the campground], I've been filling out applications like it's my job," Kayla said. They're getting denied because they "don't make two and a half times the monthly rent," she said.

"I feel like, if we can afford the rent, why can't you let us stay there? Rent will be first. We will figure out food, we will figure out all of this stuff," Kayla continued.

"We're living outside," she said. "I'd rather pay for my rent and make sure we have a roof over our heads and then if we have to go to a food bank, we'll do that."

Kayla said that she and Travis have met other people at Fort Dummer "who are stuck in the same situation."

"We met a guy who got hurt at work and got fired from McDonald's, so now he's living at a campground spending all his money, looking for a job," she said.

"It irritates me to my core that everybody sees a homeless person and thinks of people bugging you at a traffic light or following you into the grocery store asking for money or food," Kayla said. "But it's not just them."

She pointed out that she and Travis are working.

"I work full-time, and we're still in this situation," she said. "It's able-bodied adults doing anything and everything possible that we can, and it feels like we're hiking up this hill and we're finally getting somewhere, and then you turn around and you realize you're still at the bottom."

The couple recently learned that they've been accepted to the waitlist for a Section 8 housing voucher, which caps the voucher holder's contribution to rent at 30% of their income.

"That's the best news I've gotten so far," Kayla said.

"We filled out an application in September of last year and I thought that as soon as you fill out the application that they just process it and put you in, but I guess how it works is that you kind of sit in a stack until you're brought to the top and then they see if you're approved," she continued.

"Now I have to call them and see if, because we've been paying to stay outside, maybe that will speed up the process," Kayla said.

The waiting game

Calls to several public and private managers and owners of low-income rental units in the area highlighted the extent of the housing crisis.

According to David Deangelis, Section 8 administrator at the Brattleboro Housing Partnerships (BHP), 960 people have applied to the wait list for 203 units in seven low-income properties BHP owns and manages. Four hundred people have applied for Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers.

"We're looking at people waiting for over five years," Deangelis said. "That's the national trend." BHP last opened its waiting list to applicants for two months in 2020. "We closed it because we didn't think it was responsible to say to people, 'Call us in 10 years, and we'll tell you where you are on the wait list.'"

"The challenge is, even if I issue a voucher today to someone who's been waiting five years, the vacancy rate is the worst it's ever been - ever," Deangelis continued. "I've had people looking for one-bedroom apartment rentals in Brattleboro for over a year. The housing stock is not there."

Stewart Property Management of Bedford, New Hampshire, which manages four "affordable housing" properties in Brattleboro and Westminster, also maintains a wait list.

"Waits are about nine to 12 months," says property manager Kathy Relihan. "In the eight years I've been here, the wait list has never closed."

With the changes in eligibility for the motel program, she's seeing a lot more applications.

"We continue to accept applications - it just gets longer," she said. "The wait list is the same everywhere. Nobody's moving, and people are applying because they need homes. It doesn't mean there'll be any more openings, it just means I'll get more applications."

'Not landlord friendly'

Mark Reffi has been in the low-income housing rental business for 26 years. He, his wife, Jennifer, and their son, David, own and manage 20 low-income apartments in Brattleboro and 80 in Springfield.

"In the past four years, we've only had movement on two of our Brattleboro apartments," Mark said. "One was a one-bedroom apartment. The other was a three-bedroom that we rehabbed and rented to a family of four that was in the Quality Inn."

The Reffis fill their units from wait lists maintained by housing service providers in the area.

"We get calls from HCRS, Groundworks, Pathways, Restorative Justice, Springfield Supported Housing Program, asking what we have for apartments," Mark said.

"Brattleboro needs more housing," he continued. "But why would anybody put themselves out there and build when it's not landlord friendly? We need to get better eviction laws in Vermont. It's not fair to landlords to take six, seven, or eight months to evict somebody."

Mark said that by the time the situation gets to the point of eviction, "I've already let them go several months, trying to be decent and work with them."

"I'm not evicting someone who only owes for this month. We're talking they already owe for months," he said.

"We help out a lot of people that other landlords won't take," Mark said. "We try to work with them. Only about 8 to 15% of my tenants over the last couple of years haven't paid rent, or trashed apartments, or been disrespectful. I have a lot of good tenants."

"It's not uncommon to have someone break down in front of me when I'm going through the lease with them because they're so thankful to be given the chance to succeed," David Reffi said.

"And some of them don't make it, I'm not gonna lie," he said. "But quite a few succeed and that's what keeps us going."

This News report by Ellen Pratt was written for The Commons.

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