Politics

House fails to override governor’s veto on Burlington ‘just cause eviction’ bill

Rep. David Yacavone, D-Morrisville, speaks at the Statehouse in Montpelier on March 23. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated at 5:16 p.m.

MONTPELIER — State representatives narrowly failed to resurrect legislation on Tuesday that would have barred “evictions without cause” in Burlington, after Republican Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the measure last week.

The House fell one vote short of advancing H.708, an amendment to Burlington’s charter allowing city leaders to restrict when landlords can evict or not renew the lease of a tenant, to the Senate. The measure garnered 99 “yes” votes — one more than it did the first time it came before the body, but less than the 100 it needed to secure a two-thirds majority. 

The sustained veto stunned a number of housing advocates who spent the past week whipping votes in support of the charter change. 

“We knew it was going to be really close,” said Tom Proctor, a staffer at advocacy group Rights and Democracy and a lead organizer behind the just cause effort. “That’s honestly just how politics works sometimes.”

Supporters of the bill added three votes to their ledger on Tuesday, including those of Weathersfield’s John Arrison and Dorset’s Linda Joy Sullivan, both Democrats. Also, because the body’s chair can weigh in on veto overrides, House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, was eligible to vote, and contributed one more “yes” than was cast in the chamber’s Feb. 18 tally.

But the bill’s dissenters gained two votes as well, clawing back the majority’s advances. Rep. Thomas Burditt, R-West Rutland, retracted his support for the measure after Scott’s veto, and Rep. Paul Lefebvre, I-Newark, unexpectedly shifted his stance.

Lefebvre told VTDigger he initially planned to vote for the charter change, and told Krowinski so on Friday, but changed his mind Tuesday morning after he decided the bill would be too restrictive toward landlords.

“The landlord is becoming more and more the underdog,” Lefebvre said in an interview. “I’m still feeling a little ambivalent about the vote, but I guess that trumped my sense of Burlington having its local say.”

Lefebvre, a former Republican, said his change of heart wasn’t spurred by advocates for or against the legislation. At one point, House Minority Whip Rob LaClair, R-Barre Town, asked him how he would vote, he said. 

And while Lefebrve’s position ultimately aligned with Scott’s, the representative said he was not swayed by the governor’s explanation of his May 3 veto.

“By making it exceedingly difficult to remove tenants from a rental unit, even at the end of a signed lease, my fear is this bill will discourage property owners from renting to vulnerable prospective tenants, or to rent their units at all,” Scott wrote in a letter to lawmakers accompanying the veto.

Lefebvre disagreed: “I didn’t quite buy the governor’s argument on that,” he said. 

Scott doubled down on his critique of the bill at his weekly press conference Tuesday. Flanked by Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, Scott argued that the best way to create more affordable housing is to relax the state’s land use regulations.

“It’s really about timing. I don’t think it’s the right time to implement something like this,” Scott said. “Some of the changes that were in that charter change might be more appropriate after we get more housing in place.”

When asked about the charter change, Weinberger — a Democrat who signed off on its passage at the local level — sported a neutral tone.

“It’s a disappointing outcome to many people fighting for renters’ protections,” Weinberger said at the press conference. “Fortunately, in Burlington we already have some of the strongest renter protection provisions in the country. The city will continue to enforce and implement those reforms.”

The mayor, like Scott, said he believes more development is the antidote to Vermont’s housing crisis. The former developer also seemed to cast doubt on the charter change’s significance.

“The way we actually make an impact … so that there is pressure on property owners to properly manage their properties and treat renters properly,” he said, “is by building a lot more homes.”

The eviction charter change began as a ballot item that Burlington voters approved in March 2021. If it made it out of Montpelier, the bill would have instructed city councilors to pass an ordinance banning certain evictions and lease nonrenewals. 

According to the bill, the ordinance would be required to include exceptions for tenants who didn’t pay rent, violated their lease or committed a crime in their apartment. It also allowed landlords to remove tenants if they were reoccupying an apartment or were conducting “substantial renovations.”

While the charter change is now dead, its lead organizers said they would spearhead similar housing reform efforts in the next legislative session.

“It’s not over,” Proctor told VTDigger after the vote. “We have created an incredible base of support on housing issues across the state.”

Instead of abandoning the long and arduous charter change process, Proctor said his group might consider beefing up the tactic by pushing for more municipalities to file similar charter changes at once.

“Housing in Vermont right now, it’s affecting nearly everyone,” Proctor said. “Not so much the people in this chamber that just voted on this, but I would say the vast, vast, vast majority of the people.”

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Jack Lyons

About Jack

Burlington reporter Jack Lyons is a 2021 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He majored in theology with a minor in journalism, ethics and democracy. Jack previously interned at the Boston Globe, the Berkshire Eagle and WDEV radio in Waterbury. He also freelanced for VTDigger while studying remotely during the pandemic in 2020.

Email: [email protected]

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