Politics

Relief fund to help landlords struggling during Covid-19 eviction ban

Gov. Phil Scott has signed a Covid-19 relief bill that includes $25 million in aid for landlords, some of whom have experienced significant financial setbacks amid Vermont’s state of emergency. 

The bill, H.966, is timely for landlords at a time when evicting tenants for unpaid rent has become impossible. The governor signed the bill last week.

Brent Slayton, a Williamstown-based landlord, had five pending eviction hearings when he received word that statewide courts would close due to Covid-19, indefinitely suspending all non-emergency hearings. 

According to documents filed with the Orange Civil Division of the Vermont Superior Court, one of Slayton’s tenants owed an accumulated $9,600, and another owed $6,678 as of Jan. 27.

On May 14, Gov. Phil Scott enacted a moratorium on evictions, designed to prevent homelessness among low-income tenants who have lost income during the pandemic. The move, set to stay in place for 30 days after Scott ends Vermont’s state of emergency, mimicked eviction moratoriums in cities around the country. 

Slayton is dejected about the moratorium. Of the 14 units located in his building, which also houses the Williamstown Post Office, four are currently under construction, leaving only the income from several remaining tenants to pay for the building’s mortgage, insurance and utility payments. 

“I’ve given up hope,” Slayton, his voice strained, said last week before Scott signed the bill. “I have no hope at all on this. I think there’s no hope among other landlords, as well.” 

The state’s moratorium on evictions specifically bans “an ejectment action because a tenant failed to pay rent.” Landlords can only regain possession of their properties by proving that tenants’ actions “seriously threaten the health or safety of other residents.” 

Housing advocates called for the eviction ban, along with a stay on ongoing evictions, citing an increased risk of homelessness, which could lead to a greater risk of contracting the virus

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According to a report published in 2019 by Vermont Legal Aid, a nonprofit organization that provides legal support to those living in poverty, approximately 1,700 eviction cases are filed in Vermont each year, and most result in families losing their housing. 

Homelessness is taking a considerable toll on the state, which has subsidized hotel rooms — housing up to 2,000 people at the program’s peak — for many who formerly resided in shelters, which were crowded and deemed unsafe during the pandemic. The hotel project alone has already cost Vermont $13 million through the CARES Act, with more funding expected soon.

The Covid-19 relief bill could be a game-changer for landlords in Slayton’s position. It funds the Rental Housing Stabilization Program, which will send $25 million through the Department of Housing and Community Development to the Vermont State Housing Authority, which will be responsible for administering rental assistance to landlords on behalf of tenants. 

Richard Williams, the housing authority executive director, said staff are gearing up to have applications available by Friday, July 10, and plan to launch the program three days later.

Erhard Mahnke, coordinator for the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, said both for-profit and non-profit landlords are experiencing rent loss because of Covid-19.

“The H.966 is an absolutely critical piece of legislation to make funding available to both for profit and nonprofit property owners,” Mahnke said. “We recognize that landlords have to pay their bills, and many are unable to do so, or can’t pay them fully, because they’ve experienced rent losses as a result of Covid-19 and people losing their jobs. So we’re hoping that this essential aid is going out very, very soon.”

Judge Robert Mello speaks with plaintiffs and defendants over speakerphone at an in-person eviction hearing at the Rutland Superior Court on June 24. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

On June 24, Rutland Superior Court Judge Robert Mello ruled in favor of evicting a family of tenants from a mobile home in Tinmouth. Both defendants and plaintiffs called into the hearing, where they were placed on speakerphone for the judge and the plaintiff’s lawyer, who attended  in person. 

Calls were repeatedly dropped and speech was occasionally muffled, underscoring the difficulties faced by the court while holding emergency hearings during the pandemic. 

Landlords Leonard and Iris Klinger say their tenants haven’t paid rent in nine months, resulting in a loss of $7,450. The Klingers, who currently reside in a home owned by Iris’s in-laws in Florida, live on thin margins. 

The retired couple receives Social Security and disability payments, but rely on additional help from family to pay for personal expenses, housing, car, and bills related to their Tinmouth property that were previously covered by rent. 

A motion filed on behalf of the Klingers on June 2 by their Rutland-based attorney, Jeffery White, with Pratt, Vreeland, Kenelly, Martin & White, mentions the delinquent rent and the plaintiff’s limited income. It lists that the Klinger’s owe a monthly sum of $760 for their two mortgages on the Tinmouth home, and have additional expenses relating to Iris’s ongoing cancer treatments.

“Commencing 3 months ago and continuing, Plaintiffs have had to borrow significant sums of money from a relative to meet their monthly expenses,” the motion reads, “and Plaintiffs had to recently cancel a life insurance policy to obtain funds for their expenses.”

But Mello did not mention Klinger’s financial needs or their tenant’s lack of payment during this month’s hearing. Rather, the tenants were evicted on the grounds that the electricity in the half of the mobile home had stopped working, requiring the tenants to string an extension cord across the building. 

Upon visiting the property and discovering the faulty wiring, Tinmouth Town Health Officer Frank Sears ordered on May 7 that the tenants vacate the property within 30 days. Mello ruled that because the electric issue had not been fixed at the time of the hearing, the eviction would proceed. 

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“The judge, he knew about the money that these people owed us, and he chose to go for the health order, not address the money,” Iris Klinger said in an interview. “I was shocked, but I understand now that it was an emergency hearing, and he decided to go with the health order to say, well, it’s not safe for them to live there.” 

Despite the pending bill, the Klingers do not anticipate that either the state or the tenants will repay the $7,450 of owed rent. 

Larry Lozier became a landlord 33 years ago and currently owns 10 rental units in Barre. After becoming frustrated with Vermont’s tenant protection laws, which he feels affect landlords unfairly, he put together a Facebook page, called The Vermont Landlord Group, where area landlords can voice concerns. 

Lozier said all of his tenants are currently paying rent, but he worries about landlords he’s communicated with who haven’t been as lucky. 

“It’s not that we don’t feel sorry for people when they can’t afford rent,” he said. “But we can’t afford to support them and pay all our bills. Landlords are people, too.”

While Lozier stresses that landlords should carefully vet tenants to avoid the eviction process entirely, he also feels this concept hurts potential renters who may require financial flexibility. 

“I will screen to the end and make sure that I have a tenant who is going to perform as per the lease agreement,” he said. “I’ve gotten really cold-hearted because of the process. I don’t give a lot of people a chance and provide them an apartment, because I can’t afford to.”

Vermont Legal Aid stresses that tenants who have been evicted in the past often have trouble finding new housing. In its report, which analyzed evictions during 2016 and was released before the pandemic, the organization made several recommendations that, in some ways, mirror the state’s pending relief bill, including arrearage support grants for owed rent that totals less than $2,000. 

The report notes that half of eviction cases in 2016 were made based on owed amounts of $2,000 or less, and 90 percent were less than $5,000. 

“Vermont could lead the nation in — and provide a model for — combating the national eviction crisis,” the report reads.

Meanwhile, landlords like Slayton are holding out hope for relief from the state. 

“In all reality, we’re just waiting to see what happens,” he said. 

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Southern Vermont. She previously worked as a reporter for the Addison Independent, where she covered politics, business, the arts and environmental issues. She also served as an assistant editor at Vermont Sports magazine and VT Ski + Ride. Emma majored in science journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she was editor-in-chief of the Current. In 2018, she received a first-place award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in the columnist category.

Email: [email protected]

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