[Hpn] The time has come for a system to protect renters' rights
Morgan W. Brown
Thu, 04 Jan 2001 13:04:56 -0500
Below the forwarded published op-ed, which may be of interest to you and
others whom you know, are related Web site URL's -- FYI:
Wednesday, January 03, 2001
Burlington Free Press
It's My Turn [segment]
The time has come for a system to protect renters' rights
The abrupt condemnation last month of the former Samaritan House in St.
Albans and the rehabilitation of a notorious neighborhood eyesore in
Burlington's Old North End exemplify law enforcement breakdowns.
Vermont officials have made little progress in housing code enforcement
since landlord attorney Stuart Bennett told a reporter in 1989, "It's a bit
of an exaggeration even to call it a system."
In the St. Albans case, the Department of Labor and Industry first cited the
building on Lake Street in 1991 for electrical code violations, unsafe gas
appliances and smoke alarm problems. Three more
inspections in 1992 found various hazards, collectively rated as two on a
hazard scale from one to five. Two years later, a follow-up inspection
raised the hazard rating to a three. Inspections in 1996 and in 1998
continued to rate a three. There were now problems with the fire alarm
Then, early in November, an engineer called in by the assistant state fire
marshal recommended extensive repairs or demolition due to water entry and
rot. Bricks were said to be loosening from the exterior walls. On Nov. 8 the
tenants were given an order to leave by the following Monday.
Despite what looks like reasonable diligence by state officials, six units
of rental housing were lost and six households had their lives turned upside
down on needlessly short notice.
In Burlington, the "Big Red" apartment house sat deteriorating for years,
right beside the Dairy Queen. As the paint peeled and porches collapsed, a
thousand commuters daily must have wondered why the city
could not keep the place better maintained.
The file shows the city wrote the landlords twice in 1991 requesting access
for an inspection, but received no response. In 1995, the Code Enforcement
office referred the property to the city attorney's office for "priority
prosecution." Again, nothing happened, according to the office's file.
Next, in December 1999, an inspector cited the landlords for having an
accumulation of trash in back. While on the premises taking pictures of the
trash, the inspector apparently did not see there were no
handrails on the broken steps, porch supports had rotted out, both the meter
box and the chimney were separating from the building, and the garage roof
had fallen in.
No one noticed until a tenant, fed up with landlords who had ignored her
maintenance requests, stopped paying rent, called the city inspector and
forced the case into court. Code Enforcement at first said the early
19th-century building might have to be condemned, but in this case help
arrived in time. The other two tenants also took action, and the porches and
plumbing were fixed, wiring is being upgraded, and fire hazards have been
Why should older housing deteriorate, when state resources and Burlington's
rental fees -- now $38 per year per apartment -- are available for
enforcement? Why did Labor and Industry wait two years to reinspect the
deteriorating Samaritan House? Where were the city of St. Albans authorities
all those years? Why is the Burlington Code Enforcement Program
concentrating on enforcing "civility standards"
on behalf of homeowners against renters on Strong Street, when for nine
years they failed even to gain access to inspect a glaring, bright red,
notorious slum property on North Winooski Avenue?
Rental housing code enforcement systems are prone to many modes of failure.
Relying on tenant complaints instead of periodic inspections will never
work. When the vacancy rate is less than 1 percent,
people with too little income are caught between slum landlords and the
Protecting renters and rental housing needs to become a public policy in the
city and in the state. Public health concerns -- fatal fires in Burlington
and its suburbs continue to show why this is a public health issue -- cry
out for better enforcement, and Vermont's "non-system" has reigned too long.
The Legislature has failed to pass statewide code-enforcement legislation
that tenant advocates have offered. It has rejected receivership legislation
that would allow appointment of independent property managers to take over
temporarily from recalcitrant or incompetent landlords, and allow them to
borrow against future rents to make necessary repairs.
Legislation that has passed is often frustrated: Judges hesitate to award
attorney's fees to tenants who prove landlord abuses. Landlords, banks, and
insurers continue to profit from residential rentals, but there is no system
to protect the public health.
Burlington once had an affirmative program for making the city hospitable to
renters. Those days are gone. Statewide, it's never been much of an issue.
Tenants need to become organized and active. It's
long past time for some changes.
Stephen Norman of Burlington is a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid who
---End of forwarded published opinion---
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this
material is distributed without charge or profit to
those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving
this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**
~~~Related Web site URL's -- FYI:
Vermont Legal Aid (VLA):
Vermont Tenant's, Inc.:
"Renting in Vermont":
-- The Handbook for Tenants, Landlords, and Others
Vermont Landlord Tenant Statues:
Vermont Statutes Online:
-------End of forward-------
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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