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VTDigger investigates motel housing program, reveals unsafe conditions, little protection for residents

A photo of a sign reading the hilltop inn next to a vine-covered metal fence
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public File
The Hilltop Inn in Berlin has been among the motels providing emergency housing to Vermonters during a pandemic-era state program funded by federal dollars.

Early in the pandemic, the state government set up a federally-funded program to provide motel and hotel rooms to Vermonters experiencing homelessness. And between March 2020 and December 2022, the state paid out more than $160 million to shelter thousands of vulnerable residents.

But many of those tenants have flagged abysmal conditions in their motel rooms. And advocates are concerned that under the program, there hasn't been nearly enough state oversight or protections for renters.

That's according to VTDigger reporter Lola Duffort, who just finished an investigation into the state's motel housing program.

Vermont Public’s Mary Williams Engisch spoke with Lola Duffort. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Lola, some of the details in your piece are pretty harrowing. What are we seeing with the condition of some of the motel rooms being provided through this program?

Lola Duffort: Yeah, I guess repeated themes that I saw were pest infestations, especially bedbugs, that were not adequately addressed. And that would go on for months and months and months. Another common problem was doors not locking properly, and that not being fixed. And obviously, that's, you know, a huge safety concern.

Mold, plumbing problems, and that’s on top of like, more mundane, but also problematic stuff like not providing clean sheets on a regular basis, not providing the same sorts of services that would traditionally be offered to privately-paying guests.

And can tenants, if there are things like maintenance issues that you're describing, can they reach out to get those addressed? And if so, what's the record on the success rate there?

Yes, so tenants can reach out. There is an online complaint form with [Vermont Department of Health] that they can fill out, many have. And VDH does follow up sometimes quickly, and sometimes aggressively. In fact a lot of my reporting was based on Vermont Department of Health inspection records, which went in and then corroborated many of the complaints filed by residents and caseworkers.

However, doing so, you know, exposes complainants to retaliation, and there's not really much protecting them if a hotel manager or owner then wants to evict them. And you know, in one case in Brattleboro, for example, a caseworker filled out the form and reported problems throughout the establishment. VDH didn't follow up for months, and then when they did, they didn't inspect individual rooms. And when I asked them why, they said, “Well, you know, no individual rooms were named in the complaint, and there were no vacancies.” But of course, if the complainants had named individual rooms, that would have tipped off the motel owner about who had decided to speak out.

You know, there's a conflict between the vulnerability of the people who are in these motels and the processes that are there ostensibly to protect them. And I think that that's because, you know, the system that exists was set up for the traveling public, right? So if you're just a random tourist who walks into a hotel room and find filthy conditions, you're not risking much, if the day after you check out, you complain to VDH about what was there. But if this is your only source of housing, you know, then that process doesn't really work for you.

More from Vermont Public: Vt.’s housing health & safety system didn’t protect farmworkers, so they created their own program

In your story, you mentioned the state has had other motel housing programs over the years, where conditions have also been problematic. But it seems like the influx of federal money with the pandemic really brought things to another scale. Does that sound right?

Yeah, I think that's right. Vermont has long relied on motels and hotels to provide emergency shelter. It just used to rely on them a lot less. There were similar conditions reported on about this program like, 10 years ago.

And what we're paying for has never really been explored, right? The conversation has always been: Do we shut this program down? Do we keep it going? And not: Do we make sure that the people who are relying on this for emergency housing are consistently getting safe and sanitary and dignified housing?

You know, what's interesting is this is happening again, lawmakers in Montpelier are debating whether or not to ramp down this program now that federal funds are running low. But there's also this recognition that we are going to keep relying on this to a pretty large degree.

You know, the most conservative proposal out there, which has been put forward by the Scott administration, would basically rely on hotels to provide large amounts of emergency shelter in the winter months, right? So even if we go with kind of the most conservative option, we're still going to be spending a lot of money in these hotels, because there are basically no other options right now when it comes to emergency shelter.

And on the other side of this is the state of Vermont. What has the state government been paying for these motel rooms?

Now there is a cap, but there wasn't for a very long time. The cap was put in place last year, basically when the state realized that we were quickly running out of this federal money. But before then, there was none. And hotels could basically name their price.

I mean, some of these hotels were asking to be clear, pretty reasonable just kind of market rates, what they were charging. Some of them asked for as high as you know, $6,000 or $8,000 a month for a room, which is a lot more than I'm paying in rent.

More from Vermont Public: Burlington temporary shelter saw high turnout during February cold snap

As you just mentioned, federal money for this motel program, it's set to run dry at the end of the month. What's next for these tenants, especially in the immediate short-term?

I mean, I'm hearing a lot of — I'm hearing a lot of panic, right, because this is a very problematic program. But it's also the only thing that a lot of people have right now.

There is aspending package that is on the governor's desk, that could be signed or vetoed any day, that basically extends emergency housing as is through May 31. The big question is whether or not that will get signed, right, because otherwise, lots of people will be on the street as soon as March 31, which is in just a matter of weeks. But if that does get signed, then the question is: What happens afterwards?

It's very unclear what happens afterwards. This is the subject of ongoing debate in Montpelier.

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