After coming one vote shy of overriding a gubernatorial veto to enact a "just cause" eviction standard in Burlington, advocates are now making a renewed push for such tenant protections statewide.
In Vermont, a landlord can decline to renew a tenant’s lease without stating a reason. Vermont Legal Aid, which provides legal services to people with low incomes, says such “no cause” evictions are surging amid the state’s white-hot housing market, and in 2021 represented more than half of all evictions that made their way through the courts.
Efforts are now underway in Winooski, Montpelier, Essex, Hartford and Brattleboro to get charter changes banning “no cause” evictions on the ballot this Town Meeting Day in March, according to Tom Proctor, a housing organizer with Rights and Democracy. The advocacy organization is also working with lawmakers to sponsor companion legislation to ban the practice statewide.
Just cause eviction standards typically require landlords to make a case for not renewing a tenant’s lease — like nonpayment of rent, or breaking the terms of a lease — and provisions that prohibit de-facto evictions via excessive rent increases.
Landlord and real estate groups aggressively lobbied against the push for just cause in Burlington, where local voters backed such protections by a 2-to-1 margin in 2021, arguing that it would dissuade property owners from taking a risk on more vulnerable tenants.
Gov. Phil Scott subsequently vetoed the city’s charter change, saying it would make the state’s housing crisis worse, not better. In his campaign for re-election, Scott has remained steadfast in his belief that permitting and zoning reform to ease building are what’s needed to alleviate Vermont’s housing crunch, not new tenant protections.
Proctor said he agrees with the Republican governor that the state must build more housing, particularly in downtowns and village centers, and that reforming the permitting process should be part of the solution. But he argued those measures wouldn’t do anything for tenants in the short-term, who are in immediate danger of becoming displaced.
“That is something we need to be doing,” he said. “And we need to be putting in these protections now to protect people who are already living in rental accommodations and getting evicted at an unprecedented rate.”
Scott is the favorite to win re-election, and any new rental protections — whether a local charter change or statewide bill — are likely to need to muster enough votes to overcome another veto. (In Vermont, charter changes must be approved by the state’s Legislature.)
Proctor acknowledged that’s a tall order. But roughly a third of all lawmakers are turning over this year, and Rights and Democracy is optimistic that the elections in November will send more legislators who are sympathetic to tenants off to Montpelier for the next biennium.
He also said even those who might be ambivalent about such measures are feeling pressure from their constituents.
“Vermont is becoming incredibly hostile to the vast majority of the citizens that live here, and I think the Statehouse and the politicians within it see that,” he said. “I think there is going to be a sea change when it comes to the way that we deal with housing in the next couple of years.”
In Montpelier, City Council member Conor Casey said he’d decided to put just cause standard in front of the city’s Housing Committee after knocking on thousands of doors in the last few months during his campaign for a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives.
Casey said several of his own friends have either been priced out or asked to leave by their landlords, but his campaign introduced him to countless more facing the same situation — including one elderly, disabled woman who was just hit with a 33% rent increase after residing in the same apartment for about 20 years.
“We’re in jeopardy of becoming a town where people come to work — lots of service industry jobs — but they can't afford to live here. And I hate that notion,” he said.
Advocates, including Legal Aid, argue that “no cause” evictions provide cover for landlords who act in retaliatory or discriminatory ways. Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, who is helping to spearhead the effort in the Onion City — and will sponsor companion legislation for a statewide just cause standard if she’s reelected in November — said that’s exactly what happened to her.
After she reported black mold and rats to local code enforcement officers in the first apartment she rented in Winooski, Small said she was forced to look for new housing.
“My landlord retaliated by saying, ‘OK, I'm not gonna rent to you next year.’ And that was it. There was nothing I could do about it,” she said. Most evictions never go through the courts, and Small said she didn’t fight her landlord for the same reason so many other tenants don’t contest a notice to vacate: She didn’t want an eviction on her record.
Small said her story isn’t unique. And she said that attempts by prominent landlords to evict two dozen low-income and refugee families en masse — after their housing complex was featured in a joint Seven Days and Vermont Public investigation about poor housing conditions — had become a local rallying cry.
The Bove family reversed course after weeks of public outcry, but Small said those tenants should have never gone through the trauma of facing eviction and scrambling to find new housing in the first place.
Local resident Andy Blanchet has gotten involved with the just cause campaign in Winooski, where over 60% of households rent their homes. Blanchet said they’d been booted from an apartment when the landlord announced they wanted to rent the unit to their friends — and then listed it on Airbnb instead. But what happened at the Boves’ housing complex at 300 Main Street was also its own “wake-up call,” Blanchet said.
“When 300 Main happened in Winooski, that felt like a lot of people kind of immediately understood like, ‘Oh, that you know, that's not OK to do to people.’ And technically, it's not illegal — and that's not great,” they said.
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