Landlords & the Vermont Housing Crisis: A Response from TUB to Brandie Starr’s “Be Part of the Movement Towards a Sustainable Brattleboro”

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 If you are or have been a renter in Brattleboro, please attend the select board meeting on October 6th and share your thoughts.

Comments | 7

  • Finally, some tenant organization in Brattleboro!

    Part of the problem is that many landlords don’t live in Brattleboro. They could give a hoot about making Brattleboro sustainable or anything else. It’s an investment to maximize.

    Our first Brattleboro landlord lived in Keene. Another in Putney. The final one was Long Island. We didn’t move at all, but the owners kept shifting. Putney and Keene cared about us and Brattleboro a bit; Long Island not at all.

    We got priced out of Brattleboro, and found a place near town with a mortgage that was hundreds less than the Long Island folks wanted to extract as rent.

    I like the proposal to limit the upfront costs to renters. It’s essential when rents are this high.

    Loans? No, thank you. I’d rather see a rent-to-own option whereby the apartment becomes my condo after X number of years.

    Side note on background checks: I had a landlord pull me aside and tell me that they loved their background check service. They could get rather complete information at the basic level, and he said that if they paid extra they could see just about everything about someone.

    Is TUB making a database of Brattleboro landlords, rents and fees they charge, etc? It would be nice if tenants could look up background info on whom they are renting from as well.

  • Reducing rental deposits will have no effect on housing shortage

    Has Brandie Starr actually thought out her proposal to make it illegal for “landlords” to rely on first, last, and security in order to reduce their risk?

    Would this proposed government interference alleviate Brattleboro’s housing shortage, when restricting deposits would not create a single additional rental “unit?”

    Does her proposal protect mom-pop “landlords,” who might have an auxiliary apartment in their home, or occupy one unit of a 2, 3, or 4 unit dwelling; or does it just scapegoat these marginal “landlords,” particularly elderly people who rely on a bit on rental income in order to remain in their home as they age?

    I know a couple, 75 and 64, who rely on rental income from 2 apartments, to bring their income almost up to the poverty line, because relying solely on social security would mean an income of less than half of poverty.

    When this couple recently advertised the auxiliary apartment in their home — indicative of the housing crisis — they received nearly 40 inquiries. In selecting someone to live in an apartment in their home, they needed to feel safe with that person, and avoid the risk of a tenant with a marginal income who would be more likely to end up not being able to keep up with their rent.

    In sorting through prospective renters, this vulnerable couple required first, last, and security to protect themselves. From the number of inquiries and applicants these folks received, it is clear that the housing shortage creates near desperation for many people.

    Whatever the problems with capitalism underlying this desperate situation, how in hell would it help to blame mom & pop “landlord” and undermine their ability to establish reasonable requirements before opening their home to a stranger?

  • I side with tenants on this one

    Our “3 unit” mom n pop” was bought by out of state owners and the rents jumped immediately by $500 a month to $1500+ for a two bedroom . I don’t think number of units is the issue.

    “this vulnerable couple required first, last, and security to protect themselves” – Why wouldn’t first and last protect them? In our case, they would have receive $3000 with first and last alone, which is a ton of money! Why do they need $4500? : )

    To me, ‘1st, last, and security deposit’ works when rents are a few hundred dollars a month. Now they are many hundreds often into the thousands. We need to protect that ‘vulnerable couple’ but also the vulnerable renter whose income doesn’t match the dreams of the vulnerable couples.

    $1500 a month for two bedrooms on a so-so street in Brattleboro is more than enough money to put away and protect the owner, in my view. That’s $18k a year, from just one of the three units. Asking for $4,500, then, to move in is demanding that the renter become vulnerable/desperate. Why would landlords want their first interaction to be “making my tenant struggle?”

    Typical repairs from an OK tenants would be some cleaning, a fresh coat of paint, and fixing some small item. If security deposits were limited to, say, $300, I could see reaching some middle ground on this. But to have security deposits equal to the ever-rising rents is not grounded in reality.

    It’s an interesting discussion, regardless of the outcome, and long overdue.

  • Grotke's Non-Sequitor

    Chris Grotke has presented an example of a dramatic rent increase, as though it proves something about deposits.

    It is common for folks to live off of the deposit the last month, so that it is not really “first and deposit,” as Chris says, but for first, last, and no deposit.

    If an elderly person has an auxiliary apartment in their home, how dare the government to force them share their home with any person other than someone with whom they are able to establish mutual trust?

    I notice that Grotke has not addressed the very fundamental question: Does interfering with the deposit create additional housing? Why is a proposal which does nothing to increase housing, being presented as though it were a remedy for the housing scarcity?

    • Correction

      I realize I had my facts intertwined. The proposal is to get rid of the last month requirement, and to keep the security deposit. I had that reversed. I still support this proposal to make it easier for people to afford housing.

      No one is forced to be a landlord or share their home by the government (no quartering!), so the mutual trust statement makes little sense here. When Brattleboro insists on landlords taking in untrustworthy people, I’ll support your side of this.

      Also, you are equating trust with money. There are others ways to establish trust that are probably more certain.

      Does limiting the amount up upfront costs create housing? Of course not. Does it make it easier for people to become renters, not go into debt, and have some cash to spread around town on other things in the community? Yes.

      As the board said last night, this is a first step. There will be other efforts to increase incomes and numbers of apartments. There will be programs to help poor landlords who need assistance providing quality rentals. There are programs for poor renters. This one helps the middle, in my view, who don’t have the extra cash and don’t qualify for low income programs. It’s part of a big puzzle.

      There’s also a new Housing Board that will be formed.

      • The Convincer

        I manage a couple of properties for which I was able to convince the owners to accept renters whose applications would likely have been rejected when compared with those of other applicants. Based on my instinctual personal feelings about these applicants as human beings, I wanted to say, “yes,” but objectively it would have made sense to reject them in favor of a stronger candidate.

        In four such situations, I was able to recommend leasing to individuals whom otherwise would have been rejected if they had been denied the opportunity to demonstrate financial stability.

        Grotke is right that there are other ways to create trust, but when all the other means taken together are not sufficient, being able to demonstrate the ability to meet your financial obligations can be the convincer. The ability of these folks to come up with first, last, and security without a hassle, gave the owners confidence because it reduced their risk.

        Had an ordinance restricted us to first and security, it would have been prudent to select a more conventional candidate.

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