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Advocates pan Lauzon's rental ideas

by David DelcoreThe Times Argus
June 16th, 2010

BARRE City councilors had hoped to hear from tenants this week in their continuing effort to update local ordinances on rental properties in the city, But instead, with one exception, they heard from their advocates.

During a forum that was scheduled to solicit input from tenants, renters were in short supply.

Ericka Reil, of the Vermont Center for Independent Living, blamed Monday's underwhelming turnout on short advance notice of the meeting that was scheduled on the heels of a similar session attended by more than 40 landlords last week.

"A day's notice is difficult," Reil said, noting she had to juggle her own schedule in order to make it to the 6 p.m. session.

Barre Mayor Tom Lauzon said there will be additional opportunities to discuss the ordinance he's drafting it's currently at 56 pages and counting but welcomed input on an initiative that has been pitched as a plan to reclaim neighborhoods by holding both landlords and tenants accountable.

"It's a war on 'irresponsible people,'" Lauzon explained. "'Irresponsible landlords' and 'irresponsible tenants.'"

However, after listening to some of Lauzon's ideas including a proposal to fine tenants, whose rent includes trash service, for allowing garbage to accumulate outside their apartments Christopher Curtis, a staff attorney for Vermont Legal Aid said he was troubled by many of them.

"We cannot turn the war on poverty into a war on poor people." he said, flatly rejecting Lauzon's suggestion the state create a registry of troublesome tenants.

"Absolutely not," he said, noting that "blacklisting" tenants is illegal.

Curtis and Lauzon clashed over the mayor's proposal to fine tenants.

"This issue of fining tenants for any conduct that may be the responsibility of the landlord is fundamentally at odds with what the law is,' Curtis said. "The tenant should not be at risk, period."

"We'll agree to disagree," Lauzon replied.

Meanwhile, Curtis sought to undercut the dominant complaint councilors heard from landlords last week: that the eviction process is too time-consuming and expensive. Curtis told councilors that is a "myth." The reality, he said, is there is now an expedited eviction process for tenants who engage in criminal activities, and, in any event, most cases are resolved relatively quickly at a rent escrow hearing.

"Frequently in cases that take a longer period of time the court is looking into habitability issues," Curtis said, noting tenants are well within their rights to withhold rent to force their landlord to bring a substandard apartment up to code.

While the eviction process was the hot topic at last week's landlords' forum, councilors were told tenants are more concerned about uncertainty associated with what many predict will be an increasing number of foreclosures over the course of the next year.

Dale Hackett, the lone tenant at Monday's forum, said foreclosure represented a nightmare for tenants who learn way too late that their landlords have effectively walked away from the property and stopped paying for utilities.

"If something is going to happen to the property that affects the quality of life within the building there does not seem to be enough time to allow the tenants to do anything," Hackett said, citing faulty furnaces and unpaid water bills as other events that could put tenants into crisis mode.

City Manager John Craig said he preferred not to discuss issues associated with the city's water shut-off policy primarily because Curtis is representing a tenant who is suing the city for shutting off the water to her apartment based on her landlord's failure to pay the bill.

"We have an open court case," he said.

Lauzon twice suggested there was shared blame for the circumstances that led to the lawsuit filed Curtis filed on behalf of Brenda Brown, the lone remaining tenant of a four-unit apartment house that is currently in foreclosure.

"I look at that (case) as a total failure on everyone's part," he said.

Lauzon adopted an ignorance-of-the-law-is-no-excuse stance for much of the meeting.

"Just because you're a tenant doesn't absolve you of responsibility," he said, responding to Reil's suggestion that many tenants aren't savvy enough to realize the steps they can take to hold their landlords accountable.

"You need to know your rights," he said.

However, Reil worried many tenants particularly those with special needs could be steamrolled by a process that they either were not aware of, or hadn't been adequately explained to them. She said Lauzon's suggestion the city create a voluntary registry to more quickly and efficiently communicate with tenants with disabilities was unrealistic.

"A lot of people would rather put themselves in harm's way rather than let people know that they're disabled," she said.

Curtis also strenuously objected to the idea.

"The potential for discrimination is too great," he said, thanking the council for soliciting input from tenants and suggesting it focus on strengthening and enforcing existing health and safety codes in an effort to improve Barre's aging housing stock. Lauzon, who lamented the fact more tenants did not attend, suggested they would have "another bite at the apple."

"Once we roll out the (proposed) ordinance we'll have more meetings," he said.

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