Brandie Starr of the Brattleboro selectboard recently wrote an article titled, “Be part of the movement towards a sustainable Brattleboro” in which she directly addresses community members and, more specifically, landlords. The article is in reaction to and support of a, now notorious, proposal written by the Tenants’ Union of Brattleboro (TUB) which limits security deposits to an amount of one month’s rent or less.
Since the proposal was added to the last selectboard meeting agenda and since Starr has voiced her support, there have been rumblings of discontent from the landlord community. From voices of opposition at the selectboard meetings, to local landlord Deedee Jones’s rebuttal piece, to emails sent directly to the tenant’s union.
I am a member of TUB and a tenant who has rented four apartments in Brattleboro. On behalf of myself and the tenant’s union, I would like to elaborate on Starr’s points and examine the conditions that make a proposal like this reasonable, necessary and, quite honestly, not very radical. I would also like to address some of the voiced and rumored concerns from our local landlords.
As Starr and others have mentioned, laws similar to what TUB is proposing exist in almost a dozen states including NH (since 1985) and RI (since 1986) and several individual cities. When we discuss housing in regards to these states, what is unique to Vermont is that our population is in decline. Year over year, we have more people dying than being born. In 2019 VT saw its 10th consecutive year of more people moving out of state than coming to live here and realtors warn the current influx of residents due to the pandemic is a bubble likely to burst. Why are we continually trending in this direction? In addition to our scant job market, we have very real and present housing issues across the state.
According to the VT Digger in 2019, VT is reported to have the second most second homes per capita in the US. According to the Rutland Herald in 2020, we also have the fifth-largest affordability gap for renters in the country. The fifth-largest. In 2019, VPR reported that 51% of Vermont renters spend more than 30% of their income on housing.
In reaction to the security deposit proposal, many challengers have become far too comfortable throwing around the names of Groundworks and Windham & Windsor Housing as the alternative or even entire solution to unaffordable rent. Nonprofits, especially those receiving only a fraction of their operating costs from local government, and charities are a reaction to the failures of our economic systems and should not be the norm. Groundworks executive director Josh Davis wrote in March that homelessness only exists in our community because we lack the will and commitment to end it. These organizations should not exist as an excuse for damaging practices.
Other landlords have relayed that they will be retaliating by raising their rents and keeping (they use the word “making”) housing unaffordable. Others have suggested the town create a loan system for renters who cannot afford their move in costs. Aside from the fact that security deposits themselves are loans that the tenant gives to the landlord, this idea goes against the goal of alleviating struggle from the working class. Loans that are exploitative, as in ones that are targeted to low income individuals so that they may have shelter, are called predatory loans. No one makes a choice to be unsheltered.
I am very well aware that many call this proposal divisive or polarizing. Although the tenants union will not relent that our fundamental belief is that housing is a human right and should not be run as a business, this proposal will not by any measure end the rental business. Those inferring divisiveness have suggested that tenants and landlords should work together but the sentiment is patronizing and unrealistic. Renters and homeless are not in an equal or even democratic relationship with landlords (i.e.background checks only go one way, they set the price and grant access to shelter). Believing that any rights won by those most marginalized was done hand in hand with those profiting off of them is like believing pilgrims and indians held fair negotiations over a turkey dinner.
As Brandie argues in her article, landlords who are also community members should examine how they can be part of making Brattleboro sustainable, but many are instead emotionally reactionary. They believe they are not inflicting harm but their worldview is shrouded and understandably so. It is difficult to comprehend and admit that you are part of a system that perpetuates poverty. It is the same reason why people who have a “buy local” bumper sticker on their car likely wince when they turn to Amazon out of desperation. It is the same reason why looking at unconscious bias is such an emotional, difficult and, now, controversial practice. But this is also why books like “white fragility” are at the top of the NYTs best sellers list and why those “buy local” bumper stickers are created in the first place. This is also why ordinances like this one get proposed and passed.
As a member of this community that has attended several selectboard meetings and serves as a town representative, it is very clear that many of the generation who have not been renters or first time home buyers during this era of extreme cost inflation met with stifled wages, have very little concern for these issues. When Starr speaks of sustainability, she is recognizing the deterioration of livability here that, although backed by the aforementioned data, is difficult to empathize with or feel passionate about unless you are not in control of your housing. Yes, I would argue that we are facing the gentrification and moral dissolve of our “quirky” and “progressive” town, but we are also unwittingly contributing to the housing issues that cause Vermont’s population decline by being passive. We see regular opposition to thoroughly researched and innovative solutions that come in the form of proposals by passionate and unpaid community members.
Vermont and Brattleboro need radical change and housing accessibility is more than just a drop in the bucket. Brandie asks landlords if they want to invest in the people of their community, but I want to know what the members of the selectboard are investing in. Do you believe that you have done everything in your power to bring stability to our most vulnerable? Are you willing to prioritize your community members over your tourists, even if it upsets people in your own social circles, profession or class? Do you think that the systems we have in place are enough for today’s world?
The full proposal, signed by over 200 community members, can be found at www.brattleborotenants.org. If you are or have been a renter in Brattleboro, please attend the select board meeting on October 6th and share your thoughts.