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In the Special Series, Burned Out: Vermont's Apartment Fires, VPR reporters look at the issue of apartment building fire regulations which unlike private homes, are subject to inspection by the state or the municipality.The series looks at regulations, reconstruction and the people affected by apartment fires in Vermont

Advocate Says More Action Needed To Protect Renters

AP Photo/American Red Cross

Vermont has seen a number of large fires over the years, in Burlington, Brattleboro, Springfield and St. Johnsbury, to name a few, leaving deep scars across Vermont, damaging property and leaving people homeless. 

But what happens after these fires strike? And more importantly, what’s being done to keep Vermont’s renters in these buildings safe?

Jessica Radbord, a lawyer for Vermont Legal Aid, says her organization hears from people in crisis, when their furnace has been red tagged or they have live wires hanging out of their collapsed ceiling. But she says after a fire, tenants are usually so consumed with finding a place to live and how to clothe and feed themselves, they’re typically not thinking of suing their landlord.

Often these renters are put up temporarily in hotels by the American Red Cross.

Radbord says the next step may be to sue if the landlord has been negligent, but she says they never get those cases. She says many people simply want to move on with their lives.

After some fires, she’s done public records requests to see if the Department of Public Safety has been to the building before and found defective conditions.

See a selected history of Vermont fires and federal investment to rebuild (pdf 528kb)

“I think if you look at some of those inspection reports and you see defective conditions that could be causally-related to that fire, someone might have a case.”

But the time to act is before a fire. If a tenant thinks their housing isn’t up to code, Radbord says they should call their landlord first.

“Most landlords are good landlords, and will be responsive and try to make repairs in a timely fashion. If that doesn’t work, call your local town health officer. And if there are electrical, structural or fire safety defects, I recommend that people call in an inspector from the Department of Public Safety too.”

Some of Vermont’s larger municipalities, like Burlington, have code enforcement officers, but most of the state is served by town health officers, who may be volunteers with no required training.

“I can't expect a school nurse or a mechanic or a retired dentist who’s volunteered to be the town health officer to know how to spot electrical problems. That’s why I like to bring in the professional Department of Public Safety inspector. I have seen those inspectors all over the state in apartments doing a fantastic job,” Radbord says.

The health and safety laws in Vermont good, Radbord says, the problem is with enforcement. There are around 70,000 rental units, most being over 50 years old, and there are only 32 inspectors for the whole state in the Department of Public Safety.

“Realistically, given their current resources, they can only respond to complaints. But I think, why wait for a complaints? It’s better to be proactive rather than reactive, and we already know what to do,” Radbord says, citing several reports that have noted the need for a database of rental units in the state. This allows emergency personal to know where the rental housing is, and how many people live there, and allows inspectors to check on apartments and determine that they are safe.

“We need the enforcement capability to do those inspections, using trained and certified inspectors to perform not only complaint-based inspections, but to get into rental units every few years and issue a certificate of habitability, and to advise landlords of repairs that are needed.”

Radbord says Burlington already runs a similar inspection program, which pays for itself through inspections fees.

“Those fees can get passed on to the tenants in slightly higher rent. But at the end of the day, in terms of safety, it’s worth it.”

She notes that if the inspection fee is $60, that’s only $5 per month to the tenant, and landlord benefit too.

“So far as landlords having to make repairs, it’s a long-term investment, and it increases the value of the property, which means they can possibly charge more rent, or sell it for more later, and they won’t face the massive repairs charges that they face if they’ve delayed repairs for too long,” she said. And it protects the landlord from liability.

“The landlord just passed an inspection before a tenant moved in, if that tenant gets injured, or if the tenant refuses to pay rent because of alleged defective conditions, the landlord can point to that inspection report and be able to say, ‘I wasn’t negligent, I did what I was supposed to do, and I have the inspection report to prove it,” Radbord explains.

Currently, there is no such rental registry in place statewide. Springfield recently approved a registry, but it’s up for a re-vote in August.

See the tenants rights information page from the University Of Vermont.

VPR looks at these issues in our week-long series Burned Out: Vermont's Apartment Fires. Explore the series online or hear it beginning Monday August 12 at 7:50 a.m. during Morning Edition.

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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