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Tenant protections failed to gain traction in the Statehouse

This hour, we hear from tenants and their advocates about how hard it is to rent in parts of Vermont.
Anna Ste. Marie
Vermont Public
State lawmakers this year did not advance locally approved measures that would ban landlords from evicting tenants for “no cause.”

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

As Vermont faces a razor-thin rental vacancy rate, an ever-tighter home-buying market, and an uptick in homelessness, lawmakers focused this year on clearing the way for more housing development.

But when it comes to Vermonters who already have a home — and face the destabilizing threat of eviction — there was not much interest in opening up the thorny issue of landlord-tenant relations.

The lack of appetite to address tenant protections in Montpelier was most apparent in lawmakers’ decision not to advance locally approved measures that would ban landlords from evicting tenants for “no cause.”

“I continue to be disappointed by the lack of support for renters in the Legislature,” said Burlington Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, who advocated for eviction protections while serving in the House.

In Vermont, landlords can generally decline to renew a tenant’s lease for any reason. The locally approved “just cause” standards prohibit evictions for “no cause,” yet still allow a landlord to evict a tenant because they haven’t paid rent, or they’ve violated their lease. Most also limit the amount a landlord can raise the rent when leases roll over.

Court-ordered evictions have shot up in recent years, eclipsing pre-pandemic averages, and a greater share appear to be for “no cause,” according to data compiled by Vermont Legal Aid.

Proponents for the “just cause” protections argue that they’re a necessary tool to insulate renters from profit-driven or retaliatory evictions — and to give tenants greater leverage in Vermont’s white-hot housing market, with so few rentals available.

“If you are to leave your home, or get evicted from your home, you’re probably not going to be able to find another place to rent in the same area, for the same price — maybe even in the same state,” said Tom Proctor, a housing organizer for Rights & Democracy, an advocacy group that has led the “just cause” eviction push statewide.

These measures — endorsed by a majority of voters in Burlington, Winooski and Essex — need approval from the Legislature and governor before they can take effect as local laws. But a key committee opted not to advance them. (Montpelier approved a similar measure on Town Meeting Day, and it is expected to be introduced as a bill in next year’s legislative session).

When a handful of lawmakers attempted to circumvent that roadblock with floor votes in both the House and Senate, their efforts failed dramatically. Other pushes to temporarily pause “no cause” evictions statewide or ban them across Vermont permanently did not advance, either.

Some lawmakers have cited the threat of another veto from Gov. Phil Scott — who rejected Burlington’s “just cause” charter change in 2022 with a veto that House lawmakers failed to override by a single vote — as the reason not to push for the protections again this year. Many have also posed that such protections should be paired with policies that streamline and expedite the eviction process more generally, clearing the path for landlords to remove tenants who are causing safety concerns.

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, who chairs the House Committee on General and Housing, said landlord-tenant law is “extremely difficult to work on because each side feels like the other side is taking advantage of them already.”

“To say that I’m going to do something that’s so pro-tenant, that is going to be viewed as just another big slam on landlords, is not politically viable,” he said.

Proctor argued the lack of priority given to tenant protections in the Statehouse boils down to the fact that most lawmakers are far removed from the experience of renting – or are landlords themselves.

“I just don’t think there is enough lived experience within the building,” he said.

Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden Southeast, who chairs the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee, is married to Jacob Hinsdale, whose family owns over 160 rental units across Chittenden County.

Asked how her husband’s business informs her thinking on landlord-tenant issues at the Statehouse, Ram Hinsdale said she was a supporter of tenants’ rights before she met her husband, and remains one. But she emphasized the risk that a “no cause” eviction ban could make landlords opt not to rent to tenants with Section 8 vouchers or others who might need “a second chance.”

“We have to listen to all stakeholders so that they feel fairly treated. Otherwise, they have the right to not participate in the rental market in the same way,” she said.

Ram Hinsdale supports the advancement of the local charter changes, however, arguing that they could serve as useful case studies to inform a statewide “just cause” measure, which is advocates’ ultimate goal. An omnibus housing and land-use bill tees up a study of the state’s landlord-tenant law due back to lawmakers before next year’s legislative session.

That bill also carries about $4 million in funding for several programs created through last year’s HOME Act that are aimed at diverting evictions, which Stevens advocated for during the final stages of negotiations this session.

One of the programs will help tenants pay for back rent, intended to help stave off eviction for nonpayment of rent. Another will tee up a pilot project in Lamoille and Windsor counties to provide certain tenants facing eviction with an attorney, and a third will help tenants navigate resources to remain stably housed.

(Scott has signaled he may veto the bill for reasons unrelated to the tenant program funding.)

Jean Murray, an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, advocated for the programs’ creation last year and lauded lawmakers for putting money behind them now. But she sees a need to take a closer look at the power imbalance in landlord-tenant law. With demand for rentals so high, she said, landlords can evict lower-income tenants and bring in higher-paying ones without renovating in between.

“If housing policy in Vermont is about helping landlords have successful businesses, then that’s one thing, but I think housing policy in Vermont should be to help everybody in Vermont stay housed,” she said.

Ram Hinsdale predicted that landlord-tenant issues could take center stage in the Statehouse in 2025.

“We haven’t taken this issue on in a long time,” she said. “We need to take responsibility for that. And I think it will be a big conversation next year, and not an easy one.”

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

Corrected: May 21, 2024 at 3:10 PM EDT
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the timing of final negotiations on an omnibus housing and land-use bill.

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