Commentary: State must protect renters from substandard housing

Submitted for your approval, three news stories on a common theme: What happens when government isn’t up to the task?

By John Walters, VPO

Two are about Covid-19 and nursing homes, which I will address in my next post. Under consideration here, courtesy of VTDigger’s Anne Wallace Allen, is a look at Vermont’s wretched rental housing stock. The headline, “About 7,000 Vermont households lack things like kitchens, bathrooms, or heat,” is a bit exaggerated. But the reality isn’t much better.

Nobody knows exactly how many Vermonters are living in substandard housing.

That 7,000 figure is an upper estimate, so the actual number of households without crucial features may be smaller. But the story’s gut-punch is that oversight of rental housing in Vermont is spotty at best, nonexistent at worst.

The state has a rental housing code but no enforcement mechanism. Several of our larger cities have code-enforcement systems. Elsewhere, it’s entirely up to town health officers. They’re usually untrained volunteers with few resources to conduct their business. James Arisman, who formerly served as Marshfield’s health officer, told VTDigger, “Essentially there is no protection for renters in the state of Vermont by an inspection system that is robust and carrying out routine inspections.”

Yeah, that seems a little problematic.

There are plenty of appalling details, but let’s leave it here: How did we get to the year 2020 with such an archaic “system”? It’s yet another example of the Grandfather’s Lightbulb phenomenon. To wit:

Q: How many Vermonters does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Change it? That was my grandfather’s lightbulb!

There’s a very powerful current in Vermont life — public and private sector, large enterprises and small. “We’ve always done it this way.”

Well, in the case of rental housing, we need to stop doing it this way.

Allen quotes Rep. Tom Stevens, chair of the House General, Housing and MIlitary Affairs Committee, as indicating the problem is definitely on his radar. And there seems to be a simple fix: The state’s Division of Fire Safety could do the job.

Will it get all the way through the Legislature? I have my doubts. For one thing, we’re going to have an epic-length agenda in the 2021 session, and addressing all the impacts of the pandemic will top every other issue.

Besides that, there’s the state senate, whose members include a hefty number of landlords. Back in 2019, then-Seven Days reporter (now radio producer and maple syrup maker) Taylor Dobbs reported on the derailment of a bill aimed at providing some protections for renters. Essentially, the bill was killed by senator/landlords, including the soon-to-be-departed John Rodgers and the still-very-much-with-us Jeanette White. She balked at a provision creating a state registry of rental properties, which is kind of a nothingburger of a move.

“I do not want my apartment listed,” White said during a debate on the Senate floor. “My apartment is in my house, and I choose who I rent it to.”

Absolutely shameless, arguing against a bill and voting against it because it slightly impinges on her own interests. Ethics, shmethics.

And here’s a reminder that will make you either laugh or cry, White is chair of the Senate committee that oversees ethics laws.

White isn’t alone. At the time, according to Dobbs, 12 of the 30 Senators were either landlords, developers or both. Most of those people will still be in office next session.

So, my view of reform’s prospects is shaded by well-informed cynicism. If I had to predict the outcome, I’d tell you to expect creation of a study committee. At best.

If so, we will continue to limp through the 21st Century with a 19th Century renter-protection regimen. And renters, including many of Vermont’s most vulnerable, will continue to suffer the consequences.



 

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  • David Flemming
    published this page in Commentary 2020-12-04 15:08:07 -0500