Government & Politics

In housing program, motels named their price. What did Vermont’s most vulnerable get in exchange?

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With nowhere else to go — and even fewer rights than a typical renter — Vermonters housed through a state-run program in hotels and motels have had little recourse when they’ve run into poor treatment or conditions. Illustration by Taylor Haynes/VTDigger

One afternoon in early July, Amber Fleury asked the state for help. Along with her 1-year-old, she was living at the Hollow Inn in Barre, one of the six dozen motels and hotels being paid by Vermont to shelter people experiencing homelessness.

“The front door does NOT LOCK, anyone can and has pushed the door open with and without me being there,” she wrote in an online complaint form with the Vermont Department of Health, adding that she had twice notified management about it.

There were other problems, too. For weeks, the hot water didn’t work. Fleury said she bought a shampooer and spent hours scrubbing the carpets trying to remove embedded mold. She also bought new bed linens after finding the ones in her room dirty and riddled with dead bugs. 

Working long days while still grieving the recent death of her father, Fleury wrote that she and her daughter just wanted “a nice room to come home to.”

The pandemic-era programs that house Fleury and some 3,000 other Vermonters in hotels and motels have likely helped the state avoid the most dire outcomes of homelessness. They’re credited with keeping viral rates low at the outset of Covid-19 and allowing Vermont to maintain the lowest rate of unsheltered people in the nation, even as those federal figures show overall homelessness in Vermont rates second-worst in the country per capita. 

But tenants routinely complain that basic services traditionally offered at hotels, like clean sheets and toilet paper, are often withheld, while even more serious complaints abound, including severe plumbing problems, mold, chronic bed bug infestations, and doors that won’t lock. 

Lodging establishments, meanwhile, are usually charging the state full freight, and sometimes far more, to the tune of well over $50 million a year. In one case, a Bradford motel charged the state $8,000 a month per room, because, the owner said, the state simply approved the rate.

With nowhere else to go — and even fewer rights than a traditional renter — Vermonters relying on the program for shelter have had little recourse when they’ve run into poor treatment or conditions. Motel tenants can and do submit complaints to state health inspectors. But a review of records from the state Department of Health shows the inspection and enforcement process can sometimes be perfunctory, and because it makes clear to motel owners who has complained, tenants can be easily kicked out in retaliation.

Meanwhile, state officials — who lean heavily on a dwindling number of hotels to shelter the vast majority of Vermont’s growing homeless population — have been hesitant to intervene too forcefully on behalf of state-funded guests. 

Bedbugs and broken doors

VTDigger requested three months of complaints and inspections filed by or on behalf of state-funded motel guests with the health department to get a snapshot of the problem. The 20 complaints filed between July and September 2022 by guests or service providers revealed repeated themes: bed bug and cockroach infestations gone ignored, soiled linens, bad plumbing, mold and broken doors. 

Following Fleury’s complaint, a health inspector who visited the Hollow Inn observed a leaky ceiling, a toilet loosely attached to the floor, and water heaters so dented that the state plumbing inspector would need to be notified, according to the records. The person in charge at the hotel said residents could request fresh linens — but conceded that none were available at the moment, and blamed a missing linen delivery. 

As for Fleury’s broken door, it still hadn’t been fixed, records show. It had been more than five weeks since she had first reached out to the state.

A state plumbing inspector followed just hours after the health official left, and confirmed what the latter had suspected: The water heaters would need to be replaced, and the dented ones sitting outside the utility room, which the owner said they planned to swap out for the current ones, were too badly damaged for the job.

The owner complained that the establishment’s new full-time residents used more hot water than prior guests, but pledged to upgrade the water heaters “in the near future” in order to meet the new demand, according to an inspection record.

When a state fire marshal returned to the motel nearly four months later, in December, his report was more forceful.

“This needs to be done immediately or the owner will need to provide housing for all tenants and rooms will be vacated until the water heaters are fixed,” he wrote. “If this problem is not fixed fines will be issued until the violations are corrected.” Four days later, a plumber was onsite, records show.

Asked about the complaints, Lisa Ciampi, the Hollow Inn’s manager, chalked up the delay in fixing the hot water to difficulty finding qualified help. “It's very hard to get a licensed plumber around here,” she said.

But as for Fleury’s grievances, Ciampi fumed about guests who, in her view, were not grateful enough.

“You think they'd be happy with a nice warm room with a roof over their heads and you know, clean bedding and whatnot,” she said. “They're just, they're just not happy no matter what you do for them. They all have that sense of entitlement.”

If Fleury’s door was still broken, that was her fault, Ciampi argued, because she was never there when motel staff were available to make repairs. And while Ciampi marveled at how “immaculate” Fleury kept her room and her child, she also argued her former tenant’s repeated complaints and calls to police gave Ciampi no choice but to finally evict her.

According to a complaint report the Vermont Department of Health about the Hollow Inn & Motel in Barre in August 2022, which included these photos, a person living in a room described that “the front door does not lock, there are drain flies in the bathroom sink. Hotel is not providing housekeeping. The room was without hot water for two weeks. Complainant had to remediate mold in the carpet.” Photos via Vermont Department of Health

For the vast majority of the 20 complaints VTDigger reviewed, the health department followed up with an in-person visit, sometimes within days. But a few reports fell by the wayside.

In late November, Sabina Bosely, the housing case manager with Groundworks Collaborative, a nonprofit shelter and service provider, submitted a complaint about the Brattleboro Quality Inn.

There were problems throughout the establishment, the social worker wrote, including toilets that were backing up, bed bugs, broken windows, doors without working locks, live wires, and blood-stained mattresses.

Tenants sometimes died in their rooms, and the hotel wasn’t doing proper deep cleans between the time when one tenant passed and another would move in to take their place, the complaint also alleged.

According to Groundworks communications director Libby Bennett, the complaint was filed on behalf of hotel tenants, who feared being kicked out if they spoke out themselves, although case workers had also witnessed problems firsthand.

By late January, two months after the complaint had been filed, inspectors still hadn’t gone to visit the hotel. Elisabeth Wirsing, chief of the food and lodging division at the Department of Health, told VTDigger at the time that the department hadn’t received any additional complaints, and planned to follow up during a routine inspection in February. A week after speaking to a reporter, the health department provided a copy of an inspection report completed that day.

According to the report, the inspector didn’t visit individual rooms but conducted a walkthrough of common areas with an employee, who assured him the hotel was doing deep cleans after deaths and replacing any blood-soaked linens. 

The inspector nevertheless noted badly damaged and stained carpeting on every floor, as well as at least two guest room doors with padlocks instead of door knobs or handles. The health department said the Brattleboro hotel has since sent photographs confirming the doors are fixed. At the time of the inspector’s visit, every room at the Brattleboro hotel was rented to a state-funded guest.

Anil Sachdev, one of the hotel’s owners, said staff worked to respond to maintenance problems as quickly as possible but blamed residents for breaking the doors in the first place and for delaying repairs. 

“We are not allowed to go inside,” he said of the rooms. “If we go, they go, ‘Oh, give us the notice.’”

Concerning patterns

Sachdev also has an ownership stake in at least five other hotels that house Vermonters as part of the state’s program, according to business records filed with the Secretary of State, including the Econo Lodge in Montpelier, the Hilltop Inn in Berlin, and three establishments in Rutland: another Econo Lodge, the Quality Inn and the Cortina Inn. 

Payment data provided to VTDigger by the Agency of Human Services suggests the Cortina Inn and the Brattleboro Quality Inn are some of the largest providers of emergency shelter in the state. Over a three-month period, between July and September, they took in $3.2 million and $2.3 million respectively, the first and second highest in the state.

One of those establishments has been the site of several other concerning incidents.

Rutland Town health officer John Paul Faignant and an environmental inspector with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources visited the Cortina Inn in early February after a sewage backup, and, in an incident first reported by the Rutland Herald, observed raw, untreated human waste and debris surfacing outside the building entrance and backing up into two guestrooms, pooling in their bathrooms and carpeted sleeping areas.

In a subsequent interview with VTDigger, Faignant described walking into one room and finding a man with mental disabilities, disoriented and confused, “sitting in a hotel chair with his feet in a soaking wet carpet.” 

Faignant also recalled speaking outside the hotel to the man living in the other affected room — a double-amputee who had recently had his second leg removed.

“He was super paranoid about going in the room because of catching an infection, which I understood. But they were telling him they had no place to put him,” Faignant said.

The backup had been ongoing for at least two days, “yet nothing was done to vacate these folks from these rooms,” Faignant wrote in an email to Sachdev after visiting the site. “This is a complete lack of basic human decency towards these two individuals.”

Sachdev told VTDigger he’d been working to remedy February’s sewage problem for days when inspectors arrived, and had contacted the state to try to find new rooms to no avail. Complicating the search was the need to find accessible rooms, Sachdev said, and the fact that this was happening over the weekend.

“There is no room in the town of Rutland — city or town. You can go farther up to Canada and you won't find any room on the weekend because of (skiing season),” he said. His staff continually worked to clean the affected rooms, he added, even as new water bubbled up from the drains.

The sewage backup wasn’t the first time Faignant visited the property after an incident that made local headlines. In 2019, the property’s boiler room exploded, and, in an usual move, the Rutland Town Police Department criminally cited Udayan Dholakia, a member of Sachdev’s management team, in connection with the blast.

According to an investigatory report prepared by Faignant, Dholakia allegedly told guests who smelled gas that the problem was being addressed and they should not call the fire department. After a guest did call 911, firefighters detected high levels of propane in the boiler room and were ordered out of the room almost immediately by their chief. Within seconds of closing the door, the room exploded. No one was hurt, but the blast was so powerful it moved an exterior wall off its footing.

Sachdev declined to comment on the 2019 explosion, citing the ongoing legal proceedings. Dholakia has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of reckless endangerment, and the case is pending in Rutland Superior Court. His attorney did not respond to an email and phone calls requesting comment.

Two days after the sewage backup, Faignant shot off an email to Mark Eley, who oversees the motel program at Vermont’s Department for Children and Families, to detail the incident. Faignant also brought up the 2019 explosion and related criminal charge, as well as several other complaints, including residents’ recent reports of black mold.

“The point is if it was not for your program claiming it needed these rooms, the State would have to take some enforcement action for the numerous, repeated, and willful violations of the Life Safety Code,” Faignant wrote.

Eley never responded to Faignant. But in a written statement, he told VTDigger that DCF had communicated with the hotel owner, who had reported the guests affected by the sewage problem had been relocated and that the rooms were being cleaned and re-inspected this week. DCF also met with health department officials on Feb. 23 to confirm there were no additional issues, he said.

“DCF works closely with the (Vermont Department of Health’s) Food and Lodging program to ensure that hotels participating in the Emergency and Transitional Housing programs are in compliance with all applicable health and safety regulations,” he wrote. 

Name your price

Dismal conditions in some of the motels that house the most vulnerable people in Vermont have been a chronic problem spanning at least a decade. A VTDigger investigation of the state’s general assistance program, as one motel program is called, in 2014 documented similar concerns. State reports openly acknowledge persistent complaints.

What has changed is the monumental amount of federal funding that has flowed into the program since Covid-19’s arrival — and the extent to which it has become, thanks to this influx in cash, one of the state’s most important housing programs.

Once a stopgap program that reimbursed the 2,000 households that accessed it in 2011 for an average of 19 nights per year, to the tune of $2.2 million annually, Vermont’s motel-hotel programs in the pandemic era now house individuals for months or years at a time. Between March 2020 and December 2022, Vermont paid hotels $166 million to house people experiencing homelessness, according to data provided by DCF. 

And yet, despite guaranteeing payment and often a guest for every room, the state has not exactly gotten a deal. Until recently, Vermont allowed each motel to name its price — and then met it, without any negotiation. Before a monthly cap took effect in September 2022, most motels participating in the state’s transitional housing program were charging just under $4,000 a month for a room, which amounts to about $130 per night. 

But several were charging far more.

The Bradford Motel in the Upper Valley, for example, invoiced the state for nearly $8,000 a month per room — the equivalent of $258 a night — in August 2022, according to a public records request filed by VTDigger. That’s orders of magnitude more than the $200 starting weekly rates still quoted on its website, and the most any hotel participating in the program billed the state that month.

Laila Lakshamair, the co-owner, said she asked for such a high amount because the state made clear it would pay any price. When officials rolled out the transitional motel housing program last July, aimed at giving tenants more stability, she said she didn’t like new rules that would require her to give someone a 30-day notice to vacate. (The rules allow exceptions for violent or threatening behavior.) Officials with the Department for Children and Families’ economic services division, Lakshamair said, suggested she ask for whatever amount she felt made up for the added risk.

“(They) talked with us and said, ‘Laila, people are charging us what they want. We have no cap. You can charge whatever you guys want,’” Lakshamair said.

The motel later dropped its price to $5,250 a month, amounting to about $170 a night, the maximum allowable by the state. 

Despite premium prices, state-funded guests were not getting luxurious accommodations. According to state records, health inspectors who visited the Bradford property in August 2022 in response to a tenant complaint found that the hotel no longer offered air conditioning, use of its coin-operated laundry machines nor weekly linen services, and was limiting tenants to two trash bags a week. 

A photo included with the record of a complaint to the Vermont Department of Health about the Bradford Motel in August 2022 shows a damaged mattress. The complainant said the mattress was marred by cigarette holes and stains. Photo via Vermont Department of Health

Lakshamair disputed some of the state’s assessment, saying that the hotel did offer clean sheets. She blamed tenants for many of the other complaints, saying they broke the washing machines too many times trying to steal coins and jacked up her trash fees by overfilling the dumpster. 

The air conditioning, she said, was a service provided in certain rooms for “regular” people and was discontinued at the start of the pandemic. She added the service was selectively provided for those who “really needed it,” like an elderly tenant or one with disabilities.

For hotels participating in the transitional motel program, the state also added another financial incentive: a $3,300 security deposit, released to hotels for each room, which the establishments can use to cover damages. If tenants leave after at least four months and their rooms are in good condition, hotels are supposed to forward the deposit to them to get a leg up as they try to secure permanent housing.

Advocates say this has gone predictably poorly. Mark Hengstler, an attorney at Legal Services Vermont, said his organization is now consistently receiving calls from motel tenants who say the lodging establishments are wrongly pocketing the deposits.

Hengstler is especially frustrated by the state’s decision to stay out of these disputes. Despite funding the deposits and providing the occupancy agreements — which exist outside of Vermont’s landlord-tenant protections — that dictate the motel program’s rules, the state argues it has no legal status to intervene directly, and that it’s up to tenants to take their case to small claims court if they want to contest a hotel’s decision. 

“It is really hard when you’re homeless or when you’re exiting homelessness to get enough food on the table and to ensure a roof over your head,” Hengstler said. “Filing an affirmative lawsuit against a company is not easy for someone in that position to do.” (There is also a $90 filing fee.)

Balancing act

Tenants in the motel program also face constraints when it comes to challenging the conditions of their housing, and there’s nothing to stop a motel owner from kicking them out when they do. For that reason, caseworkers are perhaps best-positioned to alert state officials to concerning conditions inside motels, and multiple agencies have done so on behalf of motel residents. 

But several caseworkers with local nonprofit agencies also declined to speak on the record to VTDigger, anxious of angering motel managers, who might retaliate by barring them from entering the hotels to meet with their clients.

In an interview in January, Harry Chen, who was then chief of the Department for Children and Families, acknowledged that’s a reasonable concern.

“That is a truth,” he said. “There are hotels that have different levels of receptivity to the services we are trying to provide people.” (Chen, who was serving in his role on an interim basis, stepped down at the end of February.)

Nicole Tousignant, the head of DCF’s economic services division, said that the state has had conversations with hotel managers about letting service providers onsite. But they can only press so hard.

“I think the balancing act is that these are private businesses, they are under no obligation to work with the program,” she said. “And if we were to lose a hotel, it would mean we would have people unhoused.”

One caseworker, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing access to her clients, doesn’t buy that argument. The state may feel it is at the mercy of the hotels, but she thinks officials also underestimate the extent to which the hotels now rely on the state.

What tourist would stay in some of these places, she wonders, given their current states of disrepair?

“Certainly those folks are not going to pay the amount that the state is currently paying to stay at a motel that doesn’t provide toilet paper,” she said.

Perhaps ironically, the sentiment was partially shared by Sachdev. The hotel owner acknowledged that the establishment relies, for the time being, entirely on the state program for revenue.

“The problem will be coming when this program ends, and you will have to put about $3 to $4 million back into the property to make it back as a hotel,” he said. “It will be a big headache for the hotel owners.”

In some of the most severe cases, state officials have temporarily paused new placements into certain hotels after repeated complaints, although Chen said the state is generally very reluctant to take that step. Even when DCF is concerned enough not to send new individuals to a particular hotel, anyone already living there stays.

“If we had infinite hotel rooms, it would be much less of an issue,” Chen said. “But the fact is that we're maxed out on the capacity.”

Case in point: The state has now stopped making new placements at the Colchester Quality Inn, but as of mid-February, 68 people — including eight children — remained sheltered there. That’s despite the Vermont Department of Health placing the hotel under an abatement order in mid-October after six inspections, conducted over three months, found the management’s attempts to control a persistent bed bug infestation “wholly inadequate.” 

The matter is still not fully resolved, though the health department reported on Friday that the Quality Inn is working on coming into compliance. When the hotel attempted to renew its license to operate, the health department on Jan. 27 denied its application and instead issued a 90-day conditional license, which remains in effect. The conditional license also capped capacity at 60 rooms; last month, unhoused Vermonters occupied 56. 

Nowhere to go

With demand stubbornly high and room reimbursement rates still often above market rates, Vermont’s once unfathomably large flood of federal Covid-19 emergency housing money is finally running dry. But even as some advocates acknowledge problems with the hotels as emergency housing providers, they also emphasize that they remain, for the time being, basically the best and only available option.

Shelters across the state already report being full. Without the motels, people who can’t double up with friends or family would sleep in vehicles or would be handed tents by local nonprofits. Indeed, many already are. When yet another extreme cold snap hit Vermont in early February, local service providers scrambled to get gas cards to people so that they could run their cars through the night and prevent freezing to death.

The state now projects the programs, in their expanded, pandemic-era form, will run out of cash by the end of the month. The Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, a collection of groups addressing homelessness and housing, has asked lawmakers to find enough state dollars to keep the program going as-is for another 15 months beyond that date. The Vermont House and Senate have approved a spending package that would extend emergency housing in hotels through June 30, though new eligibility requirements would kick in after May 31. A discussion about what the state will do after that time is just getting underway in Montpelier.

Mike Maughan discusses his experience living in transitional housing at a hotel in Colchester in December. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Some 40 miles away from the Statehouse, Mike Maughan can’t say enough good things about the Colchester Days Inn, where he’s lived since the fall. The managers throw holiday events for the kids who live there, the staff are courteous, the facilities are kept clean, and residents are permitted to cheerily decorate their rooms and doors.

But as complimentary as he is about the hotel he calls home for now, he is sharply critical of the program in general — and his previous accommodations.

Before coming to the Days Inn, he spent a little less than a year at the Econo Lodge in St. Albans. He was kicked out last August after complaining to the state and the Econo Lodge’s franchisor, Choice Hotels, about the establishment’s conditions.

In an interview, the motel’s owner, Sam Desai, said he did not push Maughan out over his complaints, but because the latter had an outburst after being told to get rid of a pet snake. Maughan provided VTDigger with emails that showed his complaints preceded his eviction by just a handful of days. 

Maughan kept his voucher but could find no open rooms for over a month. During an unseasonably cold and rainy September, he drained his savings on campground fees, a propane heater, and a cot to sleep on. He’d been given a tent by the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, but it fell apart, and he wound up buying a new one. He stayed at campgrounds in Colchester and Fairfield, each time meeting people going through the exact same thing.

“There were so many people living there in my situation — who had just been kicked out of a hotel for something as petty as what I had done — like families with kids,” he said.

“There were so many people living there in my situation — who had just been kicked out of a hotel for something as petty as what I had done — like families with kids,” Maughan said. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

When he’s not doing freelance property maintenance and handyman work, Maughan spends much of his free time pressing state officials and local nonprofits to demand better from the hotels. He grew up in youth shelters and the foster care system, and in a lot of ways, Maughan said that what he’s seen in the motel-hotel program is the norm for programs that serve poor and vulnerable people. He would just like for it not to be.

“I feel like I was really impacted by how poorly a lot of the programs were administered. And I know it had negative impacts on a lot of the other people that I was with,” he said.

At a minimum, he said he’d like to see the state create a system where tenants can feel safe reporting concerns without risking retaliation. But in the rare responses to his calls and emails, the answer is often the same: The program is ending anyway — so why bother?

“DCF hasn't been willing to talk about changes to the (motel) housing program for the past three years because the program has been ‘ending in three months’ for the past three years,” he said. “And it just keeps getting extended.” 

This is not, after all, the first time Vermont has ramped down one program only to create a new one to take its place. But the crucial difference between then and now is the huge amounts of federal cash that have come — and soon will go.

Indeed, on Friday, Maughan received official word from the Days Inn management that it would pull out of the program at the end of the month, when funding is currently set to run out. He’s also been told the hotel might continue to participate if the Legislature’s latest spending package, which would extend emergency housing through May 31, is signed by Gov. Phil Scott, but that hasn’t happened yet. 

“I do not know when I'm going to be allowed to stay here until and it makes it very difficult to plan for your future,” he said.

But Maughan is still right to suspect that some version of the program is likely to stick around, whether or not he loses his voucher now or in two months, when new eligibility requirements would exclude him anyway.

Scott’s administration has argued forcefully that the program is not sustainable absent federal dollars, and lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Legislature have also signaled they are inclined to continue ramping it down. But even the Republican governor’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, includes $26 million for emergency housing in hotels. 

That figure assumes the state would substantially restrict eligibility for the majority of the year, but scale the program back up during the winter months. Advocates, meanwhile, will spend the better part of the legislative session pleading with Democratic lawmakers to improve on Scott’s opening offer.

For Anne Sosin, interim director of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, motels are still a far better option than sleeping outside — or congregate shelters, many of which still kick people out during the day and can’t offer guests any privacy.

Other states also expanded their use of motels to shelter unhoused people during the pandemic. In testimony recently submitted to lawmakers, Sosin cited research showing lower rates of hospitalization among hotel residents in San Francisco, as well as improved health outcomes for people housed in hotels in King County, Washington, and New Haven, Connecticut. These findings are echoed by ongoing research Sosin is co-leading herself, she said, where motel residents report more stable shelter has enabled them to access health care and services.

But she called some of the conditions highlighted by VTDigger’s reporting “disgraceful,” and freely acknowledged significant variation across establishments. Some motels are serving people in transitional housing admirably well, she said, even as others are plagued with problems. 

She said she’d like to see better state oversight and stronger protections for tenants, not a return to a pre-pandemic status quo.

“In the best places, it really offers a vision of what an alternative shelter program might look like going forward,” she said. “But in the worst of cases, it has really taken us back in terms of our approaches.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the organization where attorney Mark Hengstler works.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.


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