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Issue Spotlight: Ensuring Rental Housing Safety

Vermont renters, especially those with the lowest incomes, face not only a critical shortage of affordable housing, but a crumbling housing stock in which a significant portion of the rental housing in the private market has serious health and safety problems. For too long, the state has had no coherent inspection or code enforcement system, leaving renters with no recourse to hold landlords accountable for addressing issues and improving substandard housing. To address this problem, VAHC and housing advocates have long supported a Rental Housing Safety Bill that will create a registry of all rentals, a statewide code enforcement system, and funds for property owners to repair ailing units. This year, it’s closer than ever to passing and becoming law.

VAHC has long recognized that there are serious problems with the quality of much of the rental housing in Vermont, and for many renters, no clear way to address even the most deplorable conditions in their housing. Vermont faces an aging rental housing stock. According to the 2020 Vermont Housing Needs Assessment, an estimated nearly 7,000 rental housing units in Vermont have serious health and safety issues, such as incomplete kitchen and plumbing facilities, sanitation problems, faulty wiring, inadequate heat, or no heat. An additional 1,050-1,400 mobile homes may have serious quality or safety concerns so severe that they will likely be abandoned or unmarketable within 5 years. And there are about 4,000 more vacant units, many of which may be blighted or code non-compliant.

Vermont has one the oldest housing stocks in the nation.

Vermont currently lacks a statewide professional code enforcement system to help tenants who often live in deplorable conditions. About 44,000 (58 percent) of rental homes in Vermont are in towns with no regular rental housing inspection requirements, and are inspected only sporadically. (An exception is publicly subsidized housing like that owned by VAHC’s members, which is required to be inspected.) Outside of the few towns that have their own housing inspectors, Vermont relies on unpaid volunteer Town Health Officers who are often ill-equipped to do rental housing inspections. The problem is compounded by the fact that no one knows exactly how many units of rental housing exist in the state, where they are, or how many are being lost when converted to short-term vacation rentals.

To address these issues, the state set up a Rental Housing Advisory Board in 2018. The Board conducted a well-vetted study which led to the recommendations in the current rental housing safety bill, S.79.

The bill includes 3 major initiatives:

  1. Move the responsibility for the enforcement of the existing State Rental Housing Health Code from Town Health Officers in municipalities without inspection programs to the VT Dept. of Fire Safety (DFS).

  2. Establish a rental housing registry (long and short-term units) with an annual fee of $35/unit for additional inspectors and to create a rental housing database in the Dept. of Housing & Community Development.

  3. Establish the Vermont Housing Investment Program, which is similar to a very successful CARES-Act funded pilot program last fall, and will provide resources to property owners to bring vacant and code non-compliant housing up to code, weatherize them, and return them to the market. Landlords who benefit from the program will be required to prioritize prospective tenants currently experiencing homelessness or housing instability, and to keep their apartments priced at or below the Fair Market Rent.

Advocates have argued that these elements will present both the “carrot” and “stick” to hold the private market accountable for ensuring safe, quality housing and ultimately bring more housing options to the market. Additionally, the rental housing registry will be critical to understand where Vermont’s housing resources are located, so that the state can plan for the future and more effectively respond to a disaster such as COVID-19. They also hope it will help streamline communication to landlords about resources and programs.

“We license or register all kinds of business in Vermont – pet shops, food stands and restaurants, barbers and tattoo artists,” said VAHC Interim Coordinator Brian Pine. “Shouldn’t we know where homes that are rented to families and older Vermonters are located, who owns them and make sure they are inspected by trained professionals when tenants complain about unsafe conditions?”

Ultimately, housing justice is not solely about having a roof over your head. While the quantity of affordable housing is a pressing problem, quality is equally important. Poor housing quality negatively impacts mental and physical health, particularly for children. Renters deserve to live in safe places, where they can cook in functional kitchens, take refuge from the winter cold with adequate heating, and relax from the stresses of life rather than adding the stress of dealing with dismal living conditions. VAHC is encouraged that rental housing safety legislation has more momentum than ever before, and hopes the state can begin to address these problems.

This post is part of a VAHC series spotlighting affordable housing problems and solutions emerging at the state and national levels in 2021. To see the other posts, click here, and follow VAHC on Facebook and Twitter to see new posts!

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