Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Montpelier considers 'just cause' eviction standard, despite hesitance at the Statehouse

A city hall building with a clock tower
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public and VTDigger
City Hall in Montpelier, where Town Meeting Day voting is held, seen on Feb. 15, 2024.

This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.

When Beth Burgess was in her 20s, she was evicted from an apartment for a reason that seemed dubious. The landlord kicked her out because she “didn’t have enough furniture,” the 70-year-old Montpelier resident recounted; years later, she wondered if he actually wanted her gone because she’s a lesbian. The eviction meant instability: Burgess needed to move back in with her parents afterward, which was “not something I preferred to do,” she said.

Burgess has found herself remembering that long-ago experience in another state as momentum has swelled across Vermont to establish “just cause” eviction protections for renters.

Given the state’s razor-thin rental vacancy rates and rising rents, proponents of such protections argue that they’re a necessary tool to give tenants greater leverage in the housing market – and insulate them from profit-driven or retaliatory evictions. But so far, state leaders have blocked the local eviction measures from becoming law.

Now, the fight has arrived in Montpelier: On Town Meeting Day, voters will decide whether to approve a city charter change that would clearly delineate under what circumstances a landlord can evict a tenant. A landlord herself, Burgess has called on her neighbors to vote “yes” on Article 14.

“It’s just asking for fairness in coming up with reasons to evict someone,” Burgess said.

In Vermont, landlords can generally decline to renew a tenant’s lease for any reason. “Just cause” protections prohibit these evictions for “no cause” — but still allow a landlord to evict a tenant because they haven’t paid rent, or they’ve broken state landlord-tenant law or the provisions of their lease.

The language on the ballot in Montpelier mirrors measures passed by Burlington and Winooski voters in recent years. It would effectively require property owners to give current tenants the right of first refusal for the unit when the lease ends. Landlords and tenants would still be able to renegotiate, but with more guardrails. For instance, a landlord would be barred from enacting “unreasonable rent increases” which can amount to “de facto evictions.”

And many small-scale landlords, like Burgess, would be exempt altogether. Property owners who live onsite at a duplex or triplex or who rent out an accessory dwelling unit on their property could continue to evict tenants as they do today.

A yard sign surrounded by snow reads "Vote yes on Article XIV (14). Support Montpelier renters."
Lola Duffort
Vermont Public
A sign urging voters to approve Montpelier’s “just cause” eviction charter change at the Main Street roundabout in Montpelier on Feb. 19, 2024.

‘Just cause’ gets stuck in the Statehouse

Yet the “just cause” protections already approved by municipalities have stalled once they’ve reached the Statehouse. Local charter changes in Vermont must get the greenlight from legislators and the governor before being enacted, and thus far, no “just cause” measure has cleared both hurdles.

Burlington residents approved a “just cause” charter change in 2021, and the next year, lawmakers gave it their rubber stamp. But Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the measure, arguing at the time that it would discourage property owners from renting out units to “vulnerable prospective tenants,” instead encouraging them to give preference to renters with better credit scores and no criminal history on their records. Rather than pass the tenant protections, Scott emphasized the need to promote more housing development. Lawmakers fell one vote short of overriding his veto.

A hand holding a stack of papers. Glasses, a computer and more papers sit on a desk behind.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
A representative holds a stack of papers on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024.

In 2023, Burlington representatives again pushed for the charter change, and voter-approved “just cause” measures from Winooski and Essex headed to the Statehouse, too. But last year, none advanced. And this session, the prospect of passing the local charter changes appears grim.

Rep. Mike McCarthy, D-St. Albans City, who chairs the House Committee on Government Operations and Military Affairs — which has control over whether local charter changes advance — said the committee is not going to pass the bills this year. (McCarthy noted that the committee removed the Essex “just cause” provision — which included broader language than the Burlington, Winooski, and Montpelier measures — from a larger charter change bill for the town, which has advanced.)

McCarthy offered a few reasons why now is not the time to pass these “just cause” measures town by town. The bills are likely to meet yet another veto from Scott, and McCarthy does not think they would garner enough votes in both chambers for an override. He also argued that such tenant protections should be married with policies that streamline and expedite the eviction process more generally by bolstering court staffing, thus clearing the path for landlords to remove tenants who are causing safety concerns.

Instead of “just cause” protections, McCarthy wants to work on funding eviction prevention programs — and focusing on regulatory reform to bring more housing online.

“I don’t think that, in this current environment, where there are a lot of changes going on in housing, that this is the policy lever that we should push,” he said.

A short pause on some evictions?

As the local charter changes stall under the golden dome, some lawmakers are considering a temporary pause on “no cause” evictions statewide. Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, recently introduced H.616, a bill that would place a moratorium on “no cause” evictions through July 1, 2025.

In an interview, Stevens emphasized the need to swiftly fund eviction diversion programs created last session, including helping people pay when they’ve fallen behind on rent and providing legal representation for tenants in eviction court. But he has put forth the “no cause” moratorium as a way to take a pause and study the issue, he told the House Committee on General and Housing during a hearing Tuesday.

The exterior of a brick apartment building with a sign that says "The Montpelier Apartments"
Carly Berlin
Vermont Public and VTDigger
An apartment building in downtown Montpelier on Feb. 15, 2024.

Jean Murray, an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid who tracks eviction data, pointed to an uptick in evictions statewide compared to pre-pandemic levels — and noted a greater share now appear to be for “no cause.” And because a landlord doesn’t need to prove grounds to evict a tenant, “no cause” cases are more difficult for lawyers to defend.

“No cause, I think, has escalated because of the market,” Murray told the committee. “People can get low-income tenants out, and get higher paying tenants in — whether or not renovation occurs in between.”

Property managers expressed strong opposition to the “no cause” moratorium bill, arguing that “no cause” eviction is important to remove tenants who have posed problems, like creating an unsafe environment for other tenants.

“Sometimes it doesn’t have to do with lease issues or non-payment issues — at times it’s a character issue,” said Reuben Stone, co-owner of Stone & Browning Property Management, which leases rentals statewide. Stone emphasized that such tenant protections could disincentive people from becoming landlords and renting out units that are desperately needed.

Tom Proctor, a housing organizer for Rights & Democracy, an advocacy group that has led the “just cause” eviction push statewide, agrees that Vermont needs more housing. But as the state sees a stark rise in homelessness, he sees “just cause” protections as an important tool to keep renters in their homes.

Ultimately, he hopes to see lawmakers pass statewide “just cause” protections — but in the meantime, he wants to see the local charter changes advance. And he hopes Montpelier voters will approve their own on March 5.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Carly covers housing and infrastructure for Vermont Public and VTDigger and is a corps member with the national journalism nonprofit Report for America.
Latest Stories