Advocates lobby lawmakers to approve Burlington’s just-cause eviction ordinance

New England

A group of advocates have begun lobbying state lawmakers to approve a change to Burlington’s charter that requires landlords in the city to provide just cause for residential evictions.

The effort by the Just Cause Coalition comes months after voters approved the just-cause measure at Town Meeting by a nearly two-to-one margin. Under Vermont law, the legislature must sign off on municipal charter changes.

In a video message, Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale expressed support for the group’s goals. She said that during her sophomore year at the University of Vermont, her landlord billed her and her roommates each month for a series of frivolous charges.

“I was the one who was documenting that and built a case to go before the Housing Review Board,” Ram Hinsdale said in the message. “Even my roommates said, ‘I just don’t know what this will mean for us, our future ability to rent’, and I felt really alone in that process.”

Ryan Murphy, a housing navigator for the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, said she frequently speaks with people harmed by no-cause evictions.

“Over the course of the pandemic, tenants have increasingly expressed that if they are evicted, they will have no place to go,” Murphy said. “Our state has such a significant housing shortage that termination can drive people into homelessness or out of the state entirely.”

According to Vermont Legal Aid, at least 20% of eviction cases in Chittenden County are filed without cause. The percentage is higher in other areas of the state, such as Lamoille County and Windsor County, said Devon Ayers, Vermont Legal Aid testing coordinator.

“The reasons landlords are filing for eviction cases has changed dramatically since we last studied that data,” Ayers said.”This year, we have seen no cause as grounds for eviction 50% of the time.”

Coalition members say that even tenants who pay their rent on time and cause no trouble can be evicted over minor maintenance issues, which are more common in rental units. The issues can often manifest as leaking pipes, mold on the walls and drafty windows that lead to costly heating bills in winter.

Tom Proctor, an organizer with Rights And Democracy, said the demand for affordable housing exacerbates the problem.

“Landlords have no incentive to address these issues because the vacancy rate in Burlington currently sits at 1% to 2%,” he said. “As there are few affordable apartments being made, there’s no competition for tenants to move to.”

Four states — California, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Oregon — require just cause for evictions, as do the cities of Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Landlords have opposed the just-cause provision as disincentive to be either a good landlord or a good tenant.

“We feel that it’s an overreach to establish a bylaw or any sort of local control that would prevent us from just simply moving in another direction when that lease term is up,” property owner Peter Smier said at an October 2020 City Council meeting.

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