A Tenant Testimony Regarding Security Deposits and Why They Need Limits

published anonymously with the consent of the tenant
October 6, 2020

Dear Members of the Brattleboro Selectboard,

I am a tenant in Brattleboro and would like to add my experience to the voices weighing in on the Tenants Union of Brattleboro’s Security Deposit proposal.

Over the past 7 years I have rented 5 different units in different places and gone periods of time with no housing.

I want to tell you about my individual experience with security deposits and move-in costs.

I have had to borrow money to pay for security deposit/move-in costs for 3 out of 5 homes I’ve rented. My hardest experience was coming out of homelessness, wanting to stay in my community, and not having the resources to “pull myself up by my bootstraps” in a scarce and expensive housing market. The other two times I had to borrow money for “first-last-security” move-in costs, I was working full time and, while I was able to afford the monthly rent of my new home, I still could not afford the upfront costs. Only twice have I been in the position where I can afford to move into a unit without taking on debt.

I’m kind of frustrated hearing about how “good landlords” are “providing quality housing”, because it really doesn’t seem to match my experience. Four of the five homes I’ve rented had very serious issues, such as groundwater flooding, electrical issues, black mold, unsound foundations, lead paint, and often a combination of these. This doesn’t seem like an issue of a few “bad landlords” but a recurring problem where many tenants are forced to live in poor conditions because they can’t afford better, not because they don’t want to.

So, I also want to speak to the quality of the homes I’ve rented and what happened to those thousands of dollars my roommates and I have paid in security deposits over the years:

My old roommates and I were once deducted hundreds of dollars for carpet steam cleaning fees in a house where only a flight of 10 stairs and the only room at the top of the stairs, the smallest out of five rooms, had carpet. We had no pets (so no allergens embedded in the carpet) and the stairs were trafficked mainly by the one person who lived in that upstairs room, meaning that there was no damage or dirt beyond “normal wear and tear”. Seems more than a little unfair to me, and definitely put a dent in our ability to find funds to move into a new place.

I have been deducted hundreds of dollars again for steam cleaning carpets in a house where the black mold problem was so bad that somebody fell through a soggy wall while barely leaning on it and orange fungus flowers grew through the paint in the downstairs shower. Why have I been responsible for paying for maintenance and normal wear and tear in a house that I paid so much rent to live in, while the landlord’s long-term neglect caused structural compromise and mold-related health issues?

I lived in a house that was sold while I and several other tenants lived there. At the end of our lease, the new landlords - who, by the way, had no idea what the place looked like at the beginning of our tenancy- deducted several hundred dollars from our security deposit for the removal of a baseball glove, piece of plywood, and glass jar (as stated on the dump receipt) and for minor wall and floor scuffs. The new landlords then proceeded to totally gut and remodel the house within a month of us leaving.

To add some more insult to that specific experience, the new landlords of that house were pretty disrespectful of our space, in both a personal and legal sense. On one occasion they walked in totally unannounced while I was mostly naked, and when I told them that was not ok and they legally had to give us proper notice, they argued with me about their rights to their house. Because we stood up for our basic rights on several occasions, they gave us a terrible reference when we tried to find a new home. Tenants risk so much when they ask only that their basic rights are respected and are often labeled as “bad tenants” just for standing up for themselves.

That’s my experience with security deposits and move-in costs. It would have really helped me out in the past to see a “reasonable limit on security deposits” and to pay last month’s rent…last. It would have made the difference between being able to comfortably live and months of struggle to pay my other living expenses, it would have made the difference between housing and houselessness.

I also want to say that in my experience renting units where last month’s rent was not an upfront cost, I nor any of my roommates have ever considered not paying our last month’s rent. Why? Because we rely on the references of our previous landlords to rent a new place. Landlords not only have the power to terminate our present tenancy, but also can make our future housing access extremely difficult. That is not something I or any tenant I know is willing to mess with because… we need housing and renting has been our only option. When we sign a rental agreement, we are responsible for paying all the rent and respecting the terms of our agreement. End of story.

I think that an even marginally “good” landlord already just doesn’t place the undue “first-last-security” burden on us tenants and upholds their end of the deal to not provide us with a pre-damaged and unhealthy home. A good landlord would not oppose this measure, so I ask you to consider who you are listening to and whose perspectives you are validating and invalidating when you cast your vote. I think that anyone reading my account would recognize that the situations I’ve outlined are not acceptable, and I know that it would have helped me a lot to have more reasonable move-in costs. Though I think in the end we need to see a lot more things change to really address these problems, this is an obvious and important start.

Thank you for considering the less powerful voices in our community.