The Scalpel or the Chainsaw: A Response to “Tim Wessel: Rental ordinance could harm instead of help”

by Patrick Kavanaugh
October 5, 2020

Typical of the rhetorical style I like to call “politician-speak” I found that Tim Wessel used many words to say, essentially, that things should just stay how they are. Mr. Wessel’s first two points were framed as a non-point, to “[set] aside the problematic issue of municipal overreach of authority into the workings of a private transaction, and questions around how to manage enforcement.” The Brattleboro Town Charter (Article IV, Section 6, § U) clearly gives the Selectboard the power to “provide for the regulation and licensing of such activities as it deems necessary to secure the general welfare, including, but without limitations thereto, theaters, restaurants and public places where food is sold, pool halls, bowling alleys and places for the operation of video games and other coin-operated machines, laundries, dry cleaning establishments, arcades, clubs or other privately owned places where food or liquor is offered for sale, itinerant vendors, peddlers, transient merchants, pawn shops, bicycles, taxicabs and taxi drivers.” I believe many absentee landlords easily qualify as, at least, transient merchants, and anyway providing housing is a business more important to the general welfare of Brattleboro as “bicycles, taxicabs, and taxidrivers.”

As Tim also pointed out, Burlington and Barre have already exercised this authority. Ignoring, as Brandie brought up, that all of New York and New Hampshire have adopted this rule, Mr. Wessel was quick to point out that “In the case of Barre, a popular vote just removed both this ordinance and the accompanying bureaucracy of its housing board, mainly because the city could not find enough volunteers to consistently serve.” One of the top complaints I hear from landlords, aside from horror stories of “bad tenants,” is how long, expensive and emotionally taxing the eviction process is. A particularly recurrent theme is the tenant who skips town without paying last month’s rent. Maybe this is why Burlington still ‘suffers under the bureaucracy’ of its housing review board – because it’s much quicker than going through the court system for a city with a large student population moving out at the end of each semester. This could be something for our Town to explore.

The question of why Barre would remove a law that clearly protects tenants is actually pretty interesting. The law was adopted over 25 years ago, and its language was borrowed from the Burlington ordinance. Both of these communities were able to do this because of the strength of their tenant organizations. It seems, from the few articles I can find (mostly from the Times Argus), whatever tenant organizations are present there have lost influence, and the landlords packed the City Council meetings and settled in for “a lengthy hearing that began with complaints about problem tenants and the high cost of evictions and ended as one landlord expressed concern about a community with too few businesses, too much subsidized housing and a too-high tax rate.1” Barre’s Mayor, Lucas Herring, considered the testimony to be “either ‘repetitive’ or off-topic.” (Ibid.) Anyone present at our Selectboard meeting on September First would have heard a long line of poignant and diverse tenant testimony. Only two public comments opposed the security deposit proposal, only one of whom lives in Vermont.

Councilor Teddy Waszazak, one of the two who voted to uphold the rule in Barre, “took issue with some of the sweeping generalizations made about people who rent, as well as the notion that coming up with an extra $800 wouldn’t be a challenge for some.” (Ibid.) I have heard some landlords call this large upfront charge ‘a demonstration of an ability to save.’ As if poverty existed because of the financial irresponsibility of poor individuals, and not because of generations of systemic injustices? If the eviction process is difficult and lengthy for the landlord, what, exactly, is it to the tenant? If landlords have trouble with legal fees, what about the tenants who have to pay for both lawyers and the cost of physically evicting them if they ultimately lose? In 2016, NPR ran a story claiming that “47 percent of Americans would have trouble” coming up with $400 in an emergency, “they would have to sell something, borrow money or simply couldn’t pay.2” Getting kicked out of your apartment is definitely an emergency, and having to come up with 3 months of rent in one month can make this situation impossible. A Brattleboro tenant here commented to the VT Digger that their landlord, Bob Remy-Powers (whose negligence is also responsible for a fire on Elliot Street that left 17 houseless3) was “lucky we can’t afford to move right away,” after he received several citations for “electrical hazards, improper smoke detectors and falsification of lead-based paint inspection records,” and, most recently, a $700 fine for allowing bedbug-infested furniture from 3 apartments to remain on the sidewalk for almost two weeks4. Councilor Waszazak ended his comment by saying, “We have to have laws on the books that protect… tenants… We cannot make it more expensive to get an apartment here in Barre.5”.

Mr. Wessel goes on to say that this law is somehow responsible for Burlington’s higher rents. Chittenden county’s real estate market is notoriously inflated, and Burlington is 4 times the size of Brattleboro. The Security Deposit Proposal, by preventing landlords from screening potential tenants by ‘ability to save’ (which is just a measure of wealth) allows people with less familial wealth and lower incomes to get an apartment. When people of a lower income can afford to live somewhere they do three things – keep the cost of living low, keep the property prices low, and make lots of art. This would keep rents down, as well as taxes paid by the landlords. Of course, Tim maintains that this ordinance would actually raise rents.

“Landlords are in a business that our town desperately needs them to be in. They manage housing stock for those who either must or choose to rent rather than own,” Tim begins. The most common reason someone would ‘choose’ not to own property is certainly because they can’t afford to buy a house. I personally don’t think anyone should have to “manage housing stock” other than the people living in the housing. I believe it could be done with significantly lower costs to the tenants, without padding out landlords investment portfolios.

“With any business, risk is a factor, and one of the biggest risks to landlords is to have tenants who do not pay their rents. Eviction is a long and costly process that no one wants to initiate – a process that is currently prohibited because of COVID-19. So to manage their risks landlords who won’t know whether a tenant will cover their last month’s rent will likely seek a higher monthly rent to cover possible losses. They could also become much more selective when reviewing applications.”

Of course we can expect this kind of retaliation, but in the past Tim himself has described several other ways of managing the risk of someone not paying the last month’s rent. Landlords – you do not have to raise rents and demand higher credit scores – it is already Vermont State law that a security deposit will not cover the last month’s rent and the tenant is always legally responsible for this rent separate from any damages and the security deposit. At the September First Selectboard meeting, Tim, who is a landlord, said he does not personally charge last month’s rent up front. He also said he makes the security deposit slightly lower than one month’s rent, further easing move in costs on the tenant, and avoiding any misunderstanding about it covering the last month’s rent. It’s also perfectly reasonable to charge rent on the first of the month. How, in one breath, can you talk about everyone’s ‘reluctance to initiate’ an eviction, and then bemoan the eviction moratorium because of the intrusion of a global pandemic? Talking about housing in terms of financial risk, and as a long term asset, and not as a basic human right was problematic ‘pre-COVID,’ but to push all of the cost on to tenants in the midst of a deadly global pandemic and an economic collapse is truly bewildering.

In the next section, Mr. Wessel briefly cuts to the heart of the issue when he said, “Our Problem with rental housing is twofold: We have a limited supply of housing stock, and the rentals that we do have are priced fairly high due to that limited supply.” Of course, a limited supply wouldn’t have to drive up prices if housing wasn’t treated as a commodity open to speculation. The truth is, landlords will always ask as much in rent as they think they can charge. Renting is, as Dee Dee Jones so proudly stated in the Commons last week, a business. This benefits the business owners because wealthier tenants have more to spend in shops – this in turn rewards the Town government, whether they advocate for it or not, when they collect the sales taxes and property taxes from the resulting inflated property values. So prices go up and taxes go up in a positive feedback loop. I completely understand the need for taxes and the public services they fund – but we know that over a $1,000,000 every year goes to the police department. The Town itself is one of the largest landlords in Brattleboro, so it also wants to see its investments turn a profit.

Tim claims that our proposal will do nothing to alleviate these issues, I disagree. “How would this ordinance help renters with the real issue of apartment affordability?” he asks. “It would not… [the last months rent charged at the beginning] can be a burden at the beginning of the lease, it definitely becomes a blessing upon leaving, when that month’s earnings can be applied to the next apartment costs instead.” Unfortunately, there is no blessing here. The fact is that the more time between large payments, the easier it is for most people. “Helping” someone “save” by charging them more to move into a new apartment doesn’t make any sense. If you charged rent at the first of the month, the tenant would have a month to save up for the last month’s rent, then another month to save up for first month’s and a security deposit at the next place. If they didn’t do any unreasoinable damage to the apartment (and the rents haven’t gone up) they can use their refunded deposit to pay for the new deposit. People are paid – and underpaid – by the hour in our society, so asking for first, last, and security is always a burden. Every single tenant at the September First Selectboard meeting said they had trouble, most had to borrow money from friends and family, to move into a new place. The proposed ordinance simply lowers move in costs from three months’ worth to two.

Now let’s look at Tim’s plan for increasing housing stock:

“Exactly what your Selectboard has been doing: relaxing building codes to encourage the creation of new housing units, and making strategic public investments in projects investments in projects (like the Snow Block and the Sanel Building renovation) that will replace empty lots or empty buildings with muliple mixed-income units.”

We can all agree that building codes could be a little more common sense so it doesn’t take hundreds of thousand of dollars to build a home, but the real goal is to create a more amenable investment environment for developers. I always wonder exactly what mixed-income units means? I commend the State effort to fund new housing initiatives, but of course People’s United Bank purchased $5,000,000 of the resulting debt from the state. Windham & Windsor Housing Trust says that “some apartment income limits have been set as high as $55,188 for a single person household… other apartments will be paired with a rental voucher making it [more] affordable.6” The unfortunate fact of State investment in “affordable” housing is that these projects have to prove to be sound investments for the banks that end up taking the bulk of the risk. It sounds like the Sanel building rents are pretty reasonable at “between $500 and $1,000 a moth,” but again it is ultimately a State backed investment for the property owner BQ Realty.7

Offering tax cuts and government loans, gutting building codes, providing positive media light for projects, and immiserating the locals so they’ll work for lower wages – we know the playbook for attracting development capital. This environment fueled the speculation that led to the 2008 crash, and we are in for an even nastier awakening this time around. Once again, the tentative eviction moratorium is keeping millions of people in their homes. Here in Brattleboro our Groundworks collaborative have reported that, while they generally house about 33 houseless folks, since the pandemic hit they have had to house over 150 people. This has only been possible through another stopgap program: housing vouchers for motel rooms. While no doubt a life saver, the motels aren’t an ideal housing situation.

Tim seems to think a simple limit on move in costs is the “chainsaw” to his sophisticated “scalpel” work of maintaining the status quo. With this mentality, a chainsaw may be instating a housing review board in Brattleboro. A chainsaw may mean starting a community housing trust to take properties out of the market cycle entirely. A groundbreaking decision was reached in Philadelphia last week, where 50 formerly unoccupied homes were given to a community housing trust to administer for the public good.8 I think we could at least start by housing the 150 people who need it most in this Town, which is bound to balloon after the eviction moratorium ends. A chainsaw could be forgiving all of the unpaid rent since the beginning of the COVID emergency. Or possibly a rent cap – to address the problem of rising prices directly.

Finally, Tim has one final offer: “Many landlords already work out payment with renters for them to afford the last month’s rent, but a couple have gone further in suggesting that the town (or a private entity) establish a loan fund to help tenants afford a move.” I want to be clear: putting tenants further into debt with loans and payment plans is not helping anyone but the lenders, be they landlords, the town, or “a private entity” (which I assume means a bank). Even if these loans were interest free – which I doubt, the last thing we need are rental loans on top of car loans, student loans, credit cards, etc.

Tim seems to think we are setting up a “landlord-versus-tenant battle,” but I agree that both sides need to act in good faith. We, the tenants, need to pay our rents on time, and be responsible for any damage we cause. In return, the landlords have to provide safe and affordable housing. We are just asking for a fair deal: paying the last month’s rent last.