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Proposal would let Hartford regulate rental market, halt no-cause evictions

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/8/2022 10:46:04 PM
Modified: 12/8/2022 10:46:45 PM

HARTFORD — A proposed amendment to the town charter would empower the Selectboard to implement protections for residential tenants, including regulating evictions and capping rent increases.

The Hartford Charter Committee, an advisory group tasked with reviewing the town’s governmental structure and rules, is recommending the Selectboard be granted the authority to regulate rental housing, including the creation of a new ordinance to prevent landlords or property managers from evicting residential tenants “without just cause” or adequate notice.

“A just cause ordinance lays out the reasons why someone can be evicted,” Tom Proctor, a housing justice organizer from Rights and Democracy, an advocacy group based in Burlington, told the Selectboard at a meeting on Tuesday.

Proctor provided guidance to the Charter Committee to develop the charter recommendation.

“Right now a landlord can evict a tenant for no reason at all,” Proctor said. “When filing for eviction, they can (give a reason) or they can use ‘no cause,’ which is now the most common reason that a landlord evicts.”

Under Vermont statute, just cause for a tenant eviction may include a tenant breach of the rental agreement, nonpayment of rent or committing unlawful activity on the property.

The recommended Hartford ordinance, in addition to incorporating the state’s definition of just cause, would “limit unreasonable rent increases,” or rent increases purposely designed to drive out a tenant, which would constitute a “de facto eviction.”

The Selectboard would also have authority to require landlords to provide “adequate notice” before evicting a tenant or cover a tenant’s relocation expenses.

Landlords would also have to provide tenants “a reasonable probation period after initial occupancy” before issuing a just-cause eviction. These determinations of “adequate” or “reasonable” time periods would be defined by the Selectboard.

Board and committee members said they feel most Hartford renters receive fair treatment from the town’s landlords and developers, who are often members of the Upper valley community. But officials worry about the larger commercial developers who are coming into the region who may be less concerned about how they’re perceived locally.

“I don’t think this just-cause eviction stuff would ever come up with (my former landlord),” said Charter Committee member Dan Notts. “There are a lot of developers and property owners in our community who are not going to do these types of things because they don’t want to and because it’s not something you do in a small community where you have a reputation.”

Notts said he sees a tenant protection ordinance as a tool to protect against “the most egregious offenses” against longtime renters who have had good standing as tenants.

“If they are evicted, they are at least going to be given a cause or reason why they are being displaced,” Notts said.

Some developers and town officials expressed concern about the lack of corresponding protections for landlords.

Upper Valley developer Michael Davidson, who has completed multiple rental housing projects in the region, said that while most tenants are good renters, landlord and property protections are necessary for those “bad tenant” exceptions, especially given their negative impact on other building tenants.

“One bad apple can ruin a building and a whole neighborhood,” Davidson said. “Philosophically, I don’t disagree with the principle of this (ordinance), but I don’t think it will work. It isn’t going to make someone want to continue in the (rental) business in Hartford.”

Beth Long of Twin Pines Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing organization, said the organization worries this proposed ordinance could pose too many obstacles for landlords, which could have the unintended effect of limiting housing growth.

The proposed ordinance would provide landlord protections by exempting owner-occupied multifamily homes from the ordinance — since the owners should choose who shares their home or property — or evictions resulting from an owner taking a rental property off the rental market.

Town officials said this tenant-protection proposal will likely be separated from the final charter recommendations so the public can consider it individually.

Should town voters adopt a tenant-protection charter amendment, the state Legislature and governor would also need to approve the charter change.

Earlier this year Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, vetoed a Burlington-approved tenant-protection charter amendment, which the Vermont House failed to override after falling one vote shy.

However, last month’s midterm elections saw House Democrats pick up seats and regain a veto-proof majority, changing the likelihood of an override.

Proctor noted that approval of this charter amendment would not require the Selectboard to draft an ordinance. It would only give them the authority should it choose to proceed.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at 603-727-3216 or at padrian@vnews.com.




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