Landlords Need to Share the Risk That Tenants Bear
by Barry Willis and Earl Kaplan
October 3, 2020
Written in response to : Deedee Jones’ “Owning Rental Property is a Business” published in The Commons on 9/23/2020
Over the past few weeks, we have seen many landlords taking a stance against the Tenants Union of Brattleboro’s (TUB) recent proposal to limit tenant move-in costs to a maximum of two month’s rent (first month plus security deposit). In a housing shortage that’s only getting worse and an environment where over half of Vermonters are rent burdened, this is an important and simple step toward making housing accessible and affordable for all people in Brattleboro.
Yet, we continually hear confusion from landlords about why we can’t just get along and why they are perceived as “mustache twirling villains”.
In local landlord Deedee Jones’ recent opinion piece, she states that “In this culture of divisiveness, it is unfortunate that landlords and tenants need to be on opposing sides.” She also says “If a potential renter feels the price is too high for a given apartment, they will look elsewhere.” But where are we supposed to look? There are very few local listings, and even fewer in the price range of a minimum wage worker, and whenever anything does pop up it already has 10 applicants within the first day. Deedee also thinks that the select board should “want to attract new people to town who are going to work, pay taxes, and spend money here”. We, the low-wage workers of your community, already do these things. It feels like what she is really suggesting is that we go “elsewhere” to make room for people who can afford higher rent.
It should be obvious why we are on opposing sides.
Deedee, along with other landlords, has asked, “does the Selectboard or any other elected body have the right to determine what landlords charge?”
This is a fair question. According to 9 V.S.A. § 4461 (g), yes, “a town or municipality may adopt an ordinance governing security deposits on dwellings.” It is even commonplace. Burlington, VT as well as the entire states of New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island already have similar legislation.
We do not operate in a “free market”. Regulations are an important part of what makes our economy work. They are the reason that our rivers and lakes aren’t full of industrial pollutants. They are the reason that we have a minimum wage in this country. Workplace safety, antitrust protections, and the 40-hour week are all important regulations that people organized around and fought for. They didn’t accept the status-quo, and we don’t have to either. Here in Vermont, we strive to set a higher bar.
The main concern that we keep hearing from landlords is that they are being “penalized.” This is a misconception that we would like to clear up. The tenant’s union’s proposal does two things: Limits the amount of security deposit to one month’s rent, and moves the payment of last month’s rent to the last month of tenancy where it belongs. This will lower the cost of moving substantially. It will make it so that people with little or no savings can move into a home. While benefiting tenants significantly, the proposed ordinance has little to no effect on the profits of landlords. They still collect last month’s rent when it is due. There seems to also be a worry that tenants will just not make their final payment. This is a very uncommon occurrence, and, if it does happen, landlords can and will easily recoup this money in civil court. Arguing that their business will experience significant losses as a result of this ordinance is a gross overstatement.
At the end of the day, owning and managing rental property is an investment, just like stocks. It comes with comparatively few risks, generous tax write offs, and a very high long-term reward. After paying off a mortgage, landlords stand to make over twenty times their initial investment, not including however much they make monthly as personal income.
We are not asking landlords to take on undue risk, we are asking them to share some of the risk that tenants predominantly bear. A person working full time and making 15 dollars an hour would have to pay 43% of their income monthly to live in a median-cost Brattleboro apartment. If they were made to pay first, last, and security deposit, this could sum to over 130% of their monthly wage. Almost 70% of people in the United states have less than $1000 dollars in savings, and over half of those people have none. Furthermore, Vermont residents have the 8th highest likeliness of living paycheck-to-paycheck. Not being able to find affordable housing comes with serious existential risks such as food insecurity, houselessness, and real impoverishment.
Instead of worrying about small and improbable risks to their individual investments, landlords should join us in an effort to make our community stronger and more resilient. Landlords do not provide housing out of the kindness of their hearts — owning a rental property is a business. It is not surprising that they would love to attract new, wealthier people to our town who would be able to pay higher rents, but we already live here and we all deserve housing. The community that we create together is the reason that our town is beautiful, artistic, and vibrant.
Landlords and tenants stand on opposing sides because many landlords are planting their feet firmly in the past and opposing simple legislation that will benefit our community as a whole. A holistic approach would be to understand that tenants are the backbone of Brattleboro and to work to make housing affordable for all.
We ask that tenants will join us at the Selectboard meeting on October 6th to share their stories and voice their support.
Please sign TUB’s proposal on: www.brattleborotenants.org/security-deposit-proposal