The push for a ‘just cause’ eviction standard is back in Vermont cities

Efforts are currently underway in Winooski, Montpelier, Essex, Hartford and Brattleboro to secure charter amendments banning ‘without cause’ evictions on the ballot on this town meeting day in March, according to Tom Proctor, a housing organizer with Rights and Democracy. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

After missing a vote to override a governor’s veto to enact a “just cause” eviction standard in Burlington, advocates are stepping up their efforts to win such protections for tenants across the state.

In Vermont, a landlord can refuse to renew a tenant‘s lease without giving a reason. Vermont Legal Aid, which provides legal services to low-income people, says such “without cause” evictions are increasing amid the state’s white-hot housing market and, in 2021, accounted for more than the half of all evictions that have made their way through the courts.

Efforts are currently underway in Winooski, Montpelier, Essex, Hartford and Brattleboro to secure charter amendments banning ‘without cause’ evictions on the ballot on this town meeting day in March, according to Tom Proctor, a housing organizer with Rights and Democracy. The advocacy organization is also working with lawmakers to sponsor complementary legislation to ban the practice statewide.

Eviction for cause standards generally require landlords to plead for the non-renewal of a tenant’s lease – such as non-payment of rent or breach of the terms of a lease – and provisions that prohibit de facto evictions via excessive rent increases.

Landlords and real estate groups have lobbied aggressively against pressure for a just cause in Burlington, where local voters backed such protections by a 2-to-1 margin in 2021, arguing it would deter landlords from taking a risk on more vulnerable tenants.

Governor Phil Scott later vetoed the city’s charter change, saying it would make the state’s housing crisis worse, not better. In his campaign for re-election, Scott has remained steadfast in his belief that permits and zoning reform to facilitate construction are what is needed to ease Vermont’s housing crisis, not protection for new tenants.

Proctor said he agrees with the Republican governor that the state needs to build more housing, especially in town centers and village centers, and that reform of the permitting process should be part of the solution. But he argued that these measures would do nothing for short-term tenants, who are in immediate danger of moving.

“It’s something we have to do,” he said. “And we need to put those protections in place now to protect people who are already living in rental housing and are being evicted at an unprecedented rate.”

Scott is the frontrunner for re-election, and any new tenancy protection — whether it’s a local charter change or a statewide bill — will likely need to garner enough votes. to overcome another veto. (In Vermont, charter changes must be approved by the state legislature.)

Proctor acknowledged that was a tall order. But about a third of all lawmakers change this year, and Rights & Democracy is optimistic that the November election will send more tenant-friendly lawmakers to Montpellier for the next biennium.

He also said that even those who might be ambivalent about such measures are feeling the pressure from their constituents.

“Vermont is becoming incredibly hostile to the vast majority of citizens who live here, and I think the Statehouse and the politicians within it see that,” he said. “I think there is going to be a sea change in terms of how we deal with housing over the next two years.”

In Montpelier, city council member Conor Casey said he decided to put the standard of justification before the city’s housing committee after knocking on thousands of doors over the past few months while campaigning for a sits in the Vermont House of Representatives.

Casey said several of his own friends were either put on a bounty or asked to leave by their landlords, but his campaign introduced him to countless other people facing the same situation – including an elderly, disabled woman who just suffered a 33% rent increase after residing in the same apartment for about 20 years.

“We’re in danger of becoming a city where people come to work — lots of service sector jobs — but they can’t afford to live here. And I hate that notion,” he said.

Lawyers, including Legal Aid, argue that “without cause” evictions provide cover for landlords who act in a discriminatory or retaliatory manner. Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, who is helping lead the effort in Onion City — and will sponsor complementary legislation for a statewide show cause standard if re-elected in November — said that is exactly what happened to him.

After reporting black mold and rats to local code enforcement officers in the first apartment she rented in Winooski, Small said she was forced to look for new housing.

“My landlord hit back saying, ‘OK, I’m not going to rent to you next year. And that was it. There was nothing I could do about it,” she said. Most evictions never go through the courts, and Small said she didn’t fight her landlord for the same reason so many other tenants don’t dispute a vacancy notice: she didn’t want to leave. eviction in his file.

Small said her story was not unique. And she said attempts by prominent landlords to mass evict two dozen low-income families and refugees – after their housing complex was featured in a joint investigation by Seven Days and the Vermont Public into poor conditions housing – had become a local rallying cry.

The Bove family changed course after weeks of public outcry, but Small said these tenants should never have gone through the trauma of being evicted and scrambling to find new housing in the first place.

Local resident Andy Blanchet got involved in the Just Cause campaign in Winooski, where more than 60% of households rent their homes. Blanchet said they were kicked out of an apartment when the landlord announced he wanted to rent the unit to their friends – then listed it on Airbnb instead. But what happened at the Boves housing complex at 300 Main Street was also its own “wake up call,” Blanchet said.

“When 300 Main happened at Winooski, it felt like a lot of people immediately understood, ‘Oh, you know, that’s not okay to do to people. And technically it’s not illegal – and it’s not great,” they said.

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