Bove brothers plan to evict low-income refugee families in Winooski — and raise rents
Rick and Mark Bove want to evict 24 low-income, mostly refugee families from an apartment complex in Winooski and plan to raise rents to market rate, causing panic among tenants and alarming city officials.
The notices to vacate 300 Main Street, which take effect at the end of June, come at a time when affordable housing is in extremely short supply, rents across Chittenden County are rising and the state is already struggling to house hundreds of newly arriving Afghan refugees. Blindsided local officials and housing advocates are scrambling to avert what many fear will be a devastating displacement of New Americans from Winooski, a city that has sought to welcome and aid them.
"Finding affordable housing in Winooski can be challenging under the best of circumstances," Winooski School District superintendent Sean McMannon said. "It will be nearly impossible for many of the economically disadvantaged, multigenerational families who live at 300 Main to find housing that is large enough to meet their needs."
On Feb. 2, an attorney for the Bove brothers, of the namesake pasta sauce brand, delivered letters to tenants of 300 Main, a set of four townhouse-style apartment buildings. The notices said they need to vacate so that their landlord can complete "major renovations" at the property.
"Your Landlord is giving you a great deal of advance notice so you have time to find new housing," the letter states.
"Good luck to you," it concludes.
The mass evictions follow an investigation published last November by Vermont Public Radio and Seven Days that found substandard living conditions and persistent health code violations across the Boves' large empire of rentals. The apartments at 300 Main had one of the worst track records, including widespread cockroach infestations dating back to 2016, the news organizations found. The coverage highlighted a Congolese family who lived at the Winooski property until the end of 2020. Rick Bove had charged them to exterminate cockroaches that the family said were already there when they moved in.
Mark and Rick Bove did not agree to an interview, but Mark sent a statement calling the upcoming renovation "essential" to maintain quality rental housing, "which we are publicly being held accountable to do."
In response to written follow-up questions, the Boves described a "top to bottom" renovation, "including windows, doors, flooring, bathrooms, parking lots, porches and heating systems," that entails a long period without revenue. Once complete, Mark said, the complex "will most likely transition to a market rate housing location." He described the switch as a business decision and noted that the company will still offer units eligible for Section 8, the federal public housing voucher program, at some of its other locations in nearby towns.
"It is a challenging position to be in, to hear that we aren't doing enough to improve the conditions of our apartment buildings and then hear the criticism as we work to improve the conditions of our apartment buildings," the brothers' statement reads. "You can't have it both ways."
But according to John Audy, Winooski's code enforcement director, the violations highlighted by Seven Days and VPR were mostly addressed in the weeks following publication, and there were no outstanding violations that would require major renovations.
City officials were not aware of any plans to renovate before the notices went out to tenants, Audy said. The Bove brothers have not filed any permits for a project.
The five months that the Boves are giving tenants to leave is more than legally required in Vermont. For a no-cause eviction, state law requires 30, 60 or 90 days' notice, depending on whether the rental agreement is written or oral, as well as how long the tenant has occupied the unit.
But local housing officials worry that even five months isn't enough time to find new homes. As of last fall, most of the tenants were New Americans, including many large families. Eleven of the 24 units were occupied by Section 8 tenants. There are almost no affordable family-size apartments in Winooski, said Katherine Decarreau, executive director of the Winooski Housing Authority.
"That's what makes this a huge problem," Decarreau said.
Winooski Mayor Kristine Lott wrote to lawmakers last week, saying many of the refugee families at 300 Main will likely need to relocate outside the city, where they will lose crucial cultural and educational resources. McMannon, the superintendent, said 29 Winooski students, including 17 elementary-age children, could be affected.
"Being uprooted from their homes, schools and community — and possibly risking homelessness — could have severe, long-lasting consequences," he said.
Using interpreters, Seven Days and VPR spoke with New Americans residing in four of the units. Each requested anonymity to speak freely about their housing situation.
The tenants described differing experiences at the apartment complex, where rents can run about $1,450 for a two-bedroom unit. But all said they worry about having to leave the city that has become their new home.
"You don't have to evict 24 households to make it a safe and habitable place to live."
Speaking from her living room on Sunday, one Bhutanese woman, a former refugee who is a single mother of a teenage boy, said she has not had problems living at the apartment for the past few years. She appreciated the affordable rent and said the location was especially convenient. Her son can walk to school, and she's had neighbors and relatives who can help with transportation when she needs it. Nearby Nepali stores offer traditional food, clothes and furnishings.
Someone delivered the eviction notice to her door earlier this month, the woman said. She couldn't read the letter but recalled that she was asked to sign something and complied. Now that she understands she must move out, she's been struggling to sleep. Without English or computer skills, she does not know how to find another place to live. The stress, she said, is triggering some existing mental health conditions.
The eviction notice arrived at another 300 Main apartment about a year after a Congolese woman was resettled there from a refugee camp in Tanzania. The two-bedroom unit was too small for her five children, who range in age from 3 months to 15 years, and has been plagued by problems including cockroaches, seeping water and foul odors. "It is not her choice to be here," an interpreter conveyed.
But moving has not seemed like an option, and the mother has no idea where to begin looking.
"We're just waiting for any help," she said, taking a deep breath.
The notices to vacate did not mention that the landlord planned to raise rents, which left some tenants still hopeful over the weekend that there would be room to negotiate a return to their homes. A couple of the New American tenants said they were willing to accommodate a temporary relocation — for instance, by living with relatives for a month or two — until the renovation was complete.
Some community leaders were dismayed that the Boves elected to evict the entire complex at once, without coordinating their timeline with city officials or New American agencies. Other landlords who have embarked on renovations have worked with tenants to reduce the disruption, Winooski Democratic Rep. Hal Colston said. By contrast, he said, the Boves' approach seems "selfish" and "kind of ugly."
"Why this way?" he asked. "It's just not fair."
The Boves' building is in a coveted location along one of Winooski's main thoroughfares. Across the street, a new "luxury boutique" apartment building of studios and one-bedrooms is scheduled to open in the spring, with advertised rents of $1,400 to $1,700. And a run-down parking lot next to 300 Main is slated to become a four-story complex of 24 studio and one-bedroom apartments.
The Boves' plan to evict, renovate and raise rents reflects an increasingly common practice in Vermont, said Devon Ayers, a paralegal at Vermont Legal Aid.
"You don't have to evict 24 households to make it a safe and habitable place to live," Ayers said.
Last month, a Boston-based real estate investment group delivered similar lease termination notices to tenants of 18 rental units in Quechee after purchasing the properties last November, VTDigger.org reported. The new landlord is open to retaining existing tenants under new leases if they meet the new owner's income and credit requirements, a representative told the news outlet.
"We would have an interest in purchasing the property in order to avoid what is seemingly going to happen."
Last fall, Bove representative Paul O'Leary told the Essex Planning Commission that Rick Bove might raise rents at a different affordable housing building at the Essex Town Center if the planning commission didn't approve his latest proposed development there. The commission rejected his plan anyway, citing his history of health and safety violations.
Some of the Boves' apartment buildings, including those in Essex, were erected with federal tax credits that required most of the units to remain affordable in perpetuity. The brothers purchased 300 Main in 2010, and the complex is not bound by such rent restrictions.
Within days of learning about the 300 Main eviction notices, the nonprofit housing developer Champlain Housing Trust and the Winooski Housing Authority, a public housing agency, reached out to see whether the Boves might sell them the complex. They have not yet heard back.
"We would have an interest in purchasing the property in order to avoid what is seemingly going to happen in June and July," Champlain Housing Trust CEO Michael Monte said.
Shortly after VPR and Seven Days published their investigation of the Bove brothers' rental company last November, a real estate broker contacted the housing trust on behalf of the brothers, expressing interest in selling some of the Boves' apartment buildings, Monte said. The Winooski property was not among those put forward, Monte said, but regardless, the landlords decided not to proceed. In an email Tuesday, Mark Bove declined to tell VPR and Seven Days whether the brothers were looking to sell any of their rental properties.
Other community groups and activists have already begun exploring possible options with tenants to keep them in their homes. Several met with tenants over the weekend. Winooski Mutual Aid, a group of community activists, issued a statement of solidarity on Monday calling on city officials to meet with 300 Main tenants and look for solutions with them. The group urged the city to pay for interpretation services for tenants throughout the termination process.
The events at 300 Main, the group said, expose "unjust housing policies and lack of access to safe, stable and affordable housing for many of the most marginalized people in our small one-square mile community."
If they can't find a solution, refugee agencies will begin the arduous process of seeking two dozen apartments for the displaced families. They've been heavily engaged in similar work in recent months, as Vermont has taken in about 220 Afghan refugees. Many were initially placed with host families or in Airbnbs, dorms or other temporary setups while local resettlement offices and volunteers scoured the region for long-term apartments.
While the process has not been easy, the agencies have made good progress in a tight housing market, according to Tracy Dolan, the director of the Vermont State Refugee Office.
"The service providers and refugee case managers are working hard with landlords to make it happen," she said.
Already, Winooski leaders say the events at the Boves' property are prompting them to consider what policy changes might help stem future mass evictions. Mayor Lott sent a letter about the situation to the House Committee on Government Operations, which is weighing a Burlington charter change that would ban no-cause evictions.
A separate bill that has yet to gain traction would temporarily bar no-cause evictions statewide, said Ayers, of Legal Aid. The nonprofit analyzed eviction filings in Lamoille and Windsor counties during 2019 and found that 18% were for no cause. The proportion of no-cause evictions in those counties spiked to 50% in 2021, the organization found.
Colston, the state representative, said landlords who decide to evict their lease-abiding tenants should be required to help relocate them.
"It just seems this has gone too far," Colston said.