Vermont renters often stuck in unsafe homes, report finds

Vermont's aging rental housing stock is deteriorating, and local officials are often limited in their ability to force landlords to fix their properties, according to a new report from Vermont Legal Aid.

The report, "Renters at Risk," details personal stories from tenants who have lived in substandard housing, pointing out problems like mold, frozen pipes, broken appliances, rats, and a litany of other issues. Often, tenants who want to address problems in their rentals have to navigate a complicated system in order to get relief, according to the report.

The report arose from a realization that working through the system on a case-by-case basis was not doing enough to help fix the systemic, statewide problem of inadequate rental housing, said Maryellen Griffin, an attorney and chair of Vermont Legal Aid's housing task force.

"While legal aid frequently represents tenants who live in unsafe housing conditions, and we can usually help fix the immediate problem for the tenant, we find we can't take every case that needs our help," Griffin said during a news conference at the Statehouse.

Mold and pests — two of the most common complaints in Vermont, according to the report — are often drivers of increasingly serious medical conditions. Over one-fifth of all asthma cases can be attributed to mold or just too much moisture in homes, according to the report.

Harry Chen

Dr. Harry Chen, former health commissioner. File photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDigger

"People who don't have housing or don't have reasonable housing are going to be much more likely to be less healthy. Period," the report quotes Dr. Harry Chen, former commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health.

Amberly Bonilla lives in Rutland and works at the local Hannaford supermarket. During the news conference, she detailed visits to doctors to treat a rare skin condition she was inexplicably developing and said she was often breaking out in hives.

With no change in diet, cosmetic products, soaps or lifestyle, she and her doctors were at a loss trying to figure out the problem — until a rat jumped out of her dresser.

"I was scared. I did not know what to do," Bonilla said.

On top of health issues, tenants are increasingly dealing with economic issues. Half of all Vermonters struggle to pay rent, and the rental market has a 1 percent vacancy rate on average, giving landlords more supply of renters and thus, more power and flexibility to ignore problems.

Renters also have to navigate a patchwork of local and state officials in order to bring the law to bear on delinquent landlords, said Jonathan Bond, director of the mobile home program at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.

"We have inadequate inspection standards with a patchwork of different authorities that are partially responsible for just a section, and that siloing is creating confusion," Bond said.

One of the first pieces of advice Griffin, the Vermont Legal Aid attorney, will give a renter looking for relief for inadequate housing is to call a town health officer. However, those officers are often under-resourced volunteers, she said, and while some municipalities like Burlington have developed more robust code-enforcement offices with professional inspectors, many small towns are left lacking.

State agencies like the Department of Health and the Division of Fire Safety have some jurisdiction and resources to help, but generally Griffin's next piece of advice, often a last resort, is to take a landlord to court.

"We have a law that is hard to use. It's hard to fight your landlord in court — it's hard to fight your landlord at all," Griffin said.

Last year, Vermont lawmakers approved a $37 million housing bond that will be used to build as many as 650 new affordable houses for low and moderate-income Vermonters statewide. The bond is the largest of its kind in state history, but it won't directly fix the problems with Vermont's current rental housing, said Vermont Housing Finance Agency Executive Director Sarah Carpenter.

The report details several solutions that lawmakers could consider, including creating a statewide database of landlords, paying and professionalizing town health officers, increasing sanctions for health code violations and reforming the eviction process.

However, there aren't any bills yet that would address those issues, according to Sandy Paritz, director of Vermont Legal Aid's Poverty Law Project.

"We're hoping that there will be," Paritz said.


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