Rental housing regulations would cover short-term vacation rentals, too

Rental properties in Burlington on Friday, April 19, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A proposal to regulate rental housing would include short-term vacation rentals, too.

The bill considered Wednesday by the Senate Economic Development Committee would establish a registry of all Vermont rental units, including short-term vacation rentals, and set up a professional statewide inspection system.

Housing advocates and policymakers have been working on rental housing regulation for years, believing that lack of inspections allow many rentals to be substandard. 

Vermont does have rules that govern safety and quality, but outside larger communities compliance is monitored by town health officers who often work as volunteers. Many of those positions are unfilled.

A bill introduced in 2020, S.257, would establish a professional statewide inspection system with the state Division of Fire Safety, which is already performing some of the functions that town health officers have been asked to carry out. It would establish five new staff positions at an agency that already performs many building safety functions. Under the state-operated registry, landlords would pay $35 per unit per year to register.

The bill would not eliminate the position of town health officer, Shaun Gilpin, housing program administrator at the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, told the committee.

“They deal with everything from dog bites to blue-green algae blooms to excessive garbage being left out on the street,” Gilpin said of town health officers. “We’re just taking away a pretty technical aspect and putting it into an organization that has technical expertise in that area.”

Gilpin noted that, in small towns, there are other reasons the town health officer isn’t always suited to the job of responding to tenants’ complaints about unsafe housing or other problems.  

“In some towns, it ends up being the town health officer is related to the landlord or might be the landlord, and those cases come up more often than you’d expect,” he said. “Obviously, that conflict can really wreak havoc for a rental situation.”

Members of the state’s rental housing advisory board — set up in 2018 to identify where Vermont’s rental units are and to collect information on the quality of those homes — issued a report to lawmakers in January 2019 that became the basis for the proposal now before lawmakers. The board includes advocates for both landlords and tenants, municipal representatives, and other experts.

“It’s safe to say that the bill before you is the result of an incredible amount of collaboration between various stakeholder groups,” Gilpin said.

Lawmakers and advocates expect work will need to continue for some time before all parties agree on a new system of regulating the state’s rental housing properties.

“This is going to be a very major step forward in Vermont’s housing stock,” said Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden and chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee. “It’s long overdue, but we want to get it right. We don’t want to have unintended consequences.”

Nobody knows how many

According to a state report published in February, about 44,000 Vermont rental homes, about 60% of the total, are inspected only sporadically or upon request because they’re not in a town with rental registration or inspection requirements. 

The commerce agency’s 2020  Vermont Housing Needs Assessment, a statewide report that comes out every five years and uses U.S. Census data, said nearly 7,000 Vermont households could be living in rental homes with serious quality problems, such as incomplete kitchen and bathroom facilities, coal heat, or no heat. Nobody knows exactly how many Vermonters live in substandard housing. 

Lawmakers are still working on the bill, but in its existing form the bill would cover accessory dwelling units — including apartments that are rented out in single-family homes, David Hall of the legislative counsel told the committee. Hall said while the apartment would be subject to inspection, the single-family home would not be.

The owners of Vermont’s inns and hotels have long asked that the state more closely regulate short-term rentals; the issue is a top priority for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. There is no registry of these rentals now, and they don’t have to pay the registration fees levied on conventional inns and hotels.

“Airbnbs are public accommodation,” said Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor and vice chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee. “If you are opening to the public to rent that unit, it’s incumbent upon you to maintain a healthy and safe unit to rent.”

Clarkson said she thinks the rental registry stands a better chance of approval in 2021 than in previous years. in part because the Covid-19 crisis has shown the importance of maintaining more information about available rental housing. The state scrambled to find safe housing for more than 2,000 people over the course of last year. 

“The testimony sounds more supportive all the way around,” Clarkson said Wednesday.

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Anne Wallace Allen

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