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Column: Vermont needs legislation to address rental housing safety

For the Valley News
Published: 10/10/2021 10:00:09 PM
Modified: 10/10/2021 10:00:11 PM

“Out of storm and manifold perils rose an enduring state, the home of freedom and unity.”

These words are the epitaph printed on the gravestone of the first governor of Vermont, Thomas Chittenden. The phrase serves as an acknowledgement of the determination and resolve that motivated the first Vermonters during the formative years of our state. Time and again this commitment to leave no Vermonter behind has been recognized and celebrated as a defining characteristic of our state. It is that same spirit that continues to drive Vermonters today, and inspires our commitment to legislation that addresses rental housing safety. Too many Vermonters are being left behind.

Almost 30% of Vermont housing was built before 1939, making us the keepers of the fifth oldest housing stock in the nation and causing many of our neighbors to live in substandard, unsafe and unhealthy housing. The lack of housing is self-evident to anyone who has looked for a home, but more than that, we lack safe, affordable housing. Part of the solution to the more basic challenges we face could be found in the Improving Rental Housing and Safety bill (S.79), which passed the House and Senate this year but was vetoed by the governor.

The duty of inspecting rental housing is the responsibility of town health officers in each municipality. Often filled by volunteers, and usually without sufficient resources, these positions have a high turnover rate and often lack the authority needed to adequately respond to problems that are found during inspections. The rental housing bill would transition this responsibility to the state Department of Fire Safety, allowing for a consistent and specialized inspection program more adequately empowered to address the threats to safety and habitability that are discovered in too many homes.

St. Johnsbury’s acting fire chief also serves as the town health officer, in addition to his roles of fire warden and EMT director. “The state says we have to have a town health officer but doesn’t provide funding for it, so it gets added to the fire chief’s job,” Chief Christopher Olsen said.

Describing the rodent and pest infestations, sewage leaks, and dilapidated and poorly cared for rental properties he’s seen, Olsen said, “I’m coming out of some of the buildings in tears. I don’t understand how people can live in conditions like this.” The rental housing bill “would have made a big difference. It would give us the teeth that we need for enforcement.”

If a town’s fire chief needs more “teeth,” a volunteer is certainly going to feel the same lack of support. One such example is a volunteer town health officer who is a nurse by profession. When she recently responded to a tenant’s call she found mold in the person’s home. The situation was so bad that she wanted to issue a health order, but town officials said she was overstepping her bounds.

There is also no way now to efficiently and effectively communicate information to property owners about the millions of dollars available for housing supports, a problem that has been most demonstrable during times of crisis such as Tropical Storm Irene or the COVID-19 pandemic.

We don’t need a major disaster to find the value in a resource like the bill’s proposed registry. We can simply look to the woman who lives in Orleans County with her teenage daughters. Her out-of-state landlord, with multiple properties in town, is difficult to communicate with. Habitability problems, such as out-of-code wiring, faulty smoke detectors, pests, holes in the ceiling, and several instances of heat and hot water being terminated without warning, led to calls to the town health office. The town health officer was unable to respond because he couldn’t get access to the building or reach the landlord in a timely fashion.

The authority of a state official, and access to a database of property owner information, would be a game-changer for situations like this.

We are all thankful for the relief that was provided through the Vermont Housing Investment Program funding, which will invest $5 million to upgrade substandard housing in the state. This will be an important resource to begin to address the needs posed by an estimated 11,000 substandard or vacant units across Vermont. But a looming and obvious problem remains: We need rental housing safety legislation.

Gov. Phil Scott has been a true champion for the cause of increasing access to safe, affordable housing for all Vermonters, and it is precisely that support that drives us to be so hopeful that something can be done to advance such legislation into law.

Without legislation that addresses these issues in rental housing safety, many Vermonters are being left behind and the “storm and manifold perils” that drown them rise right within the walls in which they live.

David Martins, of Burlington, is director of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.

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