Brattleboro landlords seek solutions – Brattleboro Reformer
By Bob Audette, Brattleboro Reformer
Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series.
BRATTLEBORO — For many landlords and property managers in Brattleboro struggling to keep their rental units clean and safe, having an apartment building nearby that is rundown and dirty is frustrating. They wonder if government officials have the authority to confiscate a problem property, especially if drug dealing is taking place inside.
“It would be marvelous if the property could be taken,” said Sally Fegley, who co-founded Windham Property Management with her husband, Tom. “That would send a message.”
Christina Nolan, the U.S. Attorney for Vermont, said the federal government has forced property owners into civil forfeiture. But to do so, the courts have to agree that a property owner or manager was engaged in a criminal activity or knowingly allowed it.
“It’s a long and complicated process,” Nolan said. “There is no way to make it happen quickly.”
In Rutland, the U.S. Marshals Service took possession of three properties and turned them over to the city.
“Working with a nonprofit, the city renovated the properties and sold them with the covenant they had to be owner-occupied and affordable,” Nolan said. “It changed the dynamics of that area. It is possible, but it’s a long process.”
Nolan said her office is keeping its eye on Brattleboro.
“We look at every property in Brattleboro where there is criminal activity to see if the civil forfeiture process should be initiated,” she said. “I am aware of properties where this might be brought to bear, but I’m not going to comment on whether such an investigation is currently going on.”
Before such a process can start, however, said Nolan, her office has to consider the effect it will have on innocent tenants who might end up without housing.
“We have to remember that affordable housing is a critical component of how we address the opioid crisis,” she said.
Angela Zaikowski, director of the Vermont Landlords Association, said neighboring property owners could consider filing a civil action against a landlord who is not maintaining his or her property or is turning a blind eye to drug dealing in one of the units.
“The challenge is finding a group of landlords who are willing to pay for it,” said Zaikowski. She said such a civil action would have to be fact driven, would require expert testimony and some subjective analysis of what constitutes a nuisance property.
Local attorney James Valente represents both landlords and tenants in Vermont. He said filing a civil action against the owner of a nuisance property hasn’t really been tried in the state.
“I see a number of houses in Brattleboro, Bennington, Springfield and Rutland that seem to obviously be bringing down the value of the homes around them in an otherwise normal neighborhood,” said Valente.
While such an action might not be that hard to bring to court, dealing with an absentee landlord or a property owner who has fallen on hard times might make court proceedings extremely difficult.
“And imagine a property owner has been ordered to fix the siding or clean up the property but doesn’t have the money,” said Valente. “Where do you go from there?”
‘People feel threatened’
A significant part of the problem in Brattleboro is simply the age of much of the town’s housing stock, Valente said.
“In Brattleboro, people are dying to get into apartments in old dilapidated houses,” he said. “Smart operators are not buying them up, refurbishing them and renting them out. That tells you a lot. These houses are so expensive to fix up.”
“One of the problems is people are coming in to buy properties that have been allowed to deteriorate,” said Brian Bannon, Brattleboro’s zoning administrator. “They exploit them as basically slumlords. If there was a way to snatch up those really cheap properties and get them rehabbed, that could also address the problem.”
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But, said Fegley from Windham Property Management, “It shouldn’t be up to the neighbors to solve all these problems. The good landlords in town who really care about their properties and their tenants aren’t given any deference. But the bad landlords who don’t care about anything and allow drug dealing and trash to pile up on their properties are allowed to just continue. Good landlords deserve a lot of support. They are integral to the fabric of Brattleboro.”
Fegley, who is also a real estate agent, said the high taxes and Brattleboro’s reputation for “rampant” drug activity is depressing the market.
“People feel threatened,” she said. “Why should they come here?”
Susan Bellville, who owns 38 Central Street, said she knows that feeling.
“I have had threats made against me,” she said. “But I can’t be discouraged by it. I’m not going to let them win. I want them out of my neighborhood. There are some really nice people who live in that area. These are people who deserve to feel safe in their neighborhood.”
Bellville said one of the things that could help landlords in Brattleboro is if they had a fast track for the eviction of people not paying rent, for people who are trashing their apartments and for people dealing drugs or allowing someone to deal drugs out of their unit.
“It’s not like I can walk up to a tenant and say here’s your notice to quit and you now have two weeks to pay your rent or get out,” she said. “It takes so much more time and money to do that.”
To evict someone requires a long process that requires notification and the filing of a complaint in court.
“It can cost $2,000 to hire an attorney to get this done and if I’m really lucky, three months to get a tenant out,” said Bellville. “I’ve already lost several months worth of rent and when the tenant moves out I have to go in and clean it up. If they’re paying their rent but not keeping their apartment in good repair, it can take even longer. I can’t cover that without raising rents.”
And she often can’t pursue people in court for reimbursement because they don’t have any assets to forfeit.
“I can’t touch them,” she said.
Zaikowski said landlords, if they are not already, should consider joining the Vermont Landlords Association. “The more the landlords band together and have a stronger voice, the more traction we can get to effect change in Montpelier.”
Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham County, a member of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs, said there was some discussion last legislative session on how the opioid crisis is affecting Vermont’s landlords and their tenants.
“Chairman Michael Sirotkin mentioned that he’d heard from several landlords around the state that they were feeling quite overwhelmed by the fallout from the opioid epidemic and felt like they didn’t have the tools they needed to address it,” said Balint. “Some voiced concern that they were having a very hard time evicting tenants who appeared to clearly be involved in the drug trade.”
However, noted Balint, the committee didn’t discuss any legislative avenues to address this.
Balint said most of the conversation last year about housing in Vermont had to do with supporting a housing bond to address the state’s lack of affordable housing and creating enough supportive housing for Vermonters dealing with mental health issues. The committee also discussed grants that could be used to rehab old buildings to increase the state’s rental stock.
The Legislature also approved Act 188, which created a Rental Housing Advisory Board and tasked it with reviewing statewide rental issues and creating a rental unit registry to help municipalities deal with unsafe or neglected rental properties.
The Reformer was unsuccessful in contacting the local owners of 33 Oak St. and 48-50 Central St., two local apartment houses with reported drug activity and/or unsightly properties.
Zoning complaints can be filed directly with Howard, at 802-254-4832 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Bannon at 802-251-8111 or email@example.com, or by using an online form at brattleboro.org. The Brattleboro Police Department can be contacted at 802-257-7950 or at the Tip Line at 802-251-8188.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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