A Letter to Daniel Quipp

Sent on October 21, 2020

Hello Daniel,

I wanted to reach out to you today to express disappointment on behalf of both myself and the many tenants I’ve heard from regarding your decision to postpone further readings of the recent security deposit proposal. As a member of the Tenants Union of Brattleboro, I’ll be the first to admit a degree of fault around last night’s presentation. It would appear that the Selectboard itself is not the only group of people confused about how our local legislature operates, and we did not make a concerted effort to mobilize tenants for what we understood to be an intermediary conversation concerning the details of the housing board of review. If you have spent any time doing grassroots organizing, you will understand just how difficult it can be to mobilize busy, working people (especially for a Zoom meeting) and the risk of participant “burnout”. We had hoped to bring tenants into conversation with the Selectboard on the date of the final vote, but it appears that this was the wrong strategy. The consequence of this misunderstanding was the forefronting of a small group of oppositional landlord voices and a relative silence from tenants (though there were at least five tenants still in the stack when public comment ended).

Without sufficient dialogue with tenants, you appear to have been swayed by the louder voices in the room, so I’m here to speak to you as both myself and as a representative of the close to 250 people (2% of Brattleboro) who have signed the proposal.

I can’t count the number of houses and apartments that I have simply not applied for because the craigslist posting asked for “first, last, and deposit”. When I only have $600 in the bank and it would cost my partner and I $2400 to move in, this requirement prohibits us from even considering these spaces. The posting might as well say “People without wealth need not apply”, as this is the explicit intention of the requirement. If you do a little poking around landlord forums, they will tell you that the “benefits” of asking for last month’s rent up front are that you will be more likely to find a “higher-quality tenant”, but that you run the risk of limiting your “tenant pool”. In some places, this would seem to be a fair trade that landlords should be free to choose, but in Brattleboro, where the housing shortage is so critical that as many as fifty applicants may apply for a single apartment (as recently reported to the tenant’s union), landlords are not risking anything by requiring this extra payment. It is used as a form of vetting that is at the root of why we have brought you this proposal. Despite the straw-man we have heard from both oppositional landlords and some members of the Selectboard, we do not think that this proposal will solve income disparity, create new homes, or make monthly rent more affordable. Our goal is to remove one of the most common forms of poverty discrimination that plagues our local housing market. Without this measure, people without access to wealth and savings (over 70% of vermonters) are forced to compete against each other for an exceedingly and increasingly small portion of the housing market. This ordinance would increase the housing pool that low wage people in our community have access to and would therefore directly put a larger portion of those people in homes.

It is worrisome that the Selectboard is increasingly flirting with means-tested loan programs instead of addressing the core of the issue. Setting up a system where tenants can pay off their last month’s rent over their tenancy effectively raises their rent and compounds the problem with interest. It also delays their ability to prove their financial capacity to pay up front. It may be illegal to discriminate against people for receiving financial aid in Vermont, but what landlord, given dozens of applicants, will preferentially choose the individual who has to apply for aid over one who can provide the money day-of. Leases are increasingly being signed just a day or two after the initial posting, and any added delay is likely to be a large barrier to people finding homes.

These programs also ask for more labor from tenants. Further applications, proof of income, increased monthly costs, and a prolonged bureaucratic process are all likely to disincentivize people in need from accessing these programs. People are far more likely to stretch themselves unsustainably thin, or to borrow money from friends or family that they may be unable to pay back. I have personally loaned friends money so that they could move into homes (and have usually gotten paid back), but why should I bear the risk that comes as part of the investment of property owners? And furthermore, why is the Selectboard so eager to offload this risk onto local taxpayers instead of letting the small potential risk of non-payment fall on the people who benefit most from the structure as it stands. A lot of tenants are finding it pretty telling of the current priorities of our local government that a proposal for renters rights has been distorted into programs that aim to maintain these pervasive forms of discrimination while simultaneously protecting landlords from any potential risk. In this time of legal and statistical research, I would ask you to look for information regarding how infrequently landlords go uncompensated at the end of a tenancy, rather than spending so much time looking for alternatives to this simple and common-sense ordinance.

I want to ask you a simple question: Who does the Selectboard represent? At first, it may feel like the answer is “everyone”, but that answer is not reflected in the voices that echo through the community comment sections of your meetings. This proposal has the support of almost 250 signatories, ranging from tenants to homeowners to landlords, while the opposition has largely been from less than ten very vocal and persistent landlords, the majority of whom are owners of large investment properties. It truly boggles the mind that these voices have so much sway in the conversation. These individuals are effectively acting as business lobbyists working against a democratically driven proposal to expand the rights of underprivileged people. People in our community’s business class are generally far more politically engaged and have both the time and motivation to participate in Selectboard meetings. We have also seen that they are given preferential treatment, and often asked to continue speaking past their time, due to their status and higher visibility in the community. However, their interests do not represent the interests of the majority, just as the DOW JONES does not represent the financial security of average Americans. They primarily voice out-sized concerns of not getting paid last month’s rent, though we have seen no evidence that this is a pervasive or even a common problem. They worry that the security deposit will be used in lieu of rent, though the proposal specifically disallows this usage. The alarmist concerns of an extreme minority of your constituency should not be foregrounded at the cost of tenant testimony and a groundswell of community support.

I may not have fully convinced you, but I hope that this goes some way toward alleviating some of your concerns. I implore you, if not to support the proposal outright, to at least keep it alive and visible in the public eye. We as tenants are fighting an uphill battle. We have to convince you to support us through a gauntlet of readings and to finally vote in favor, while all that the opposition needs is for you to postpone a vote. The tenants of Brattleboro are asking you to pass this proposal, not a half-measure that neglects the root of the issue. Inaction is not neutral, and I hope that you will make a strong effort to continue this conversation at the November 17th meeting.

If you have any other reservations that I have failed to address, I would love to continue this conversation either by phone, or through a socially-distant meeting. Feel free to reach out to me here so that we can develop a dialogue.

Thank you very much for your time,

Earl Kaplan

Brattleboro Tenant