• Renters wary of eviction rules
     | April 06,2008

    MONTPELIER State law attempts to establish a delicate balance between the rights of tenants and landlords. But landlords say the balance has shifted too far toward renters, making it difficult to evict those who destroy property or don't pay rent.

    Although it has gotten little notice outside Montpelier, a bill now in the House the Senate has already approved it unanimously would ease some of the requirements a landlord must meet to evict tenants.

    The changes proposed under S.372 are technical, but they may make a significant difference in the lives of people who own rentals and those who live in them.

    If it becomes law, the bill would mean that:

  • Landlords will no longer have to prove that tenants received eviction notices; sending notices via certified mail to the correct address would be enough.

  • Eviction notice periods in some cases would be altered.

  • Landlords would be allowed to continue the eviction process even when they accept partial rent payments. Now acceptance of partial rent voids "notice to quit" or an eviction.

    u Eviction notice times would be shortened in cases where tenants are involved in criminal activity, illegal drug activity or acts of violence. Landlords say proving such cases is often difficult, since doing so is contingent on police involvement or on other tenants who may be too afraid to testify.

    The bill also reverses a provision that was created partly by the courts. Currently, if a landlord sends a second eviction notice to a tenant, it effectively cancels out the first one. Under the new law, landlords can send out multiple notices to tenants without restarting the eviction process.

    Vermont Legal Aid attorneys, the primary opponents of the measure, say the change will confuse tenants. And in general, they say that reversing recent court decisions favorable to tenants is the wrong way to go.

    Legal Aid and other tenant advocates are facing a tough battle. That is because, in addition to the support of the Senate, both for-profit and nonprofit landlord advocates including some who also represent tenants support the measure. In addition, the bill came out of a state-sanctioned process in which a variety of stakeholders were involved.


    The proposed changes worry Kim Colson. The mother of two, who now lives in South Royalton, just went through a protracted dispute with her former landlords.

    Colson objected to the condition and safety of her former rental (she requested that the landlords install hard-wired smoke detectors and operable windows in the bedrooms) and contacted the local health inspector. Later the couple who owned the property sought to have her evicted.

    Although the eviction did not go through Colson had paid her rent neither she nor her landlords wanted to renew the lease, Colson said. That decision marked the beginning of what became a protracted dispute over the security deposit.

    Although she and her former landlords reached an agreement recently, it took 18 months for Colson to get her safety deposit back.

    In the interim, she said the withheld deposit money made it harder for her to afford a new apartment.

    "I had to put down a new security deposit and first month's rent," Colson said.

    She struggled to find another place she could afford and that met the state's housing codes without disrupting her children's schooling too much, Colson said. And she discovered that, particularly around Vermont Law School where students occupy many units, it can be especially tough for a single parent to find a place.

    At the Parent Child Center in Norwich, where Colson works full time she sees families who have been homeless. Their stories added to her panic that she too might find herself and her family without a place to live, Colson said.

    "I was preparing to be homeless," she said. "I knew what was going to happen if we didn't find another place. Going to work every day, working with families who are homeless, I knew what I was in for."

    In the end, Colson borrowed money from her family to get into a new place. But with rising fuel prices, her situation is still marginal, Colson said.

    "We are just surviving," she said. "We are just one disaster from disaster."

    Opponents of the bill now in the Legislature say S.372 could make it easier for landlords to withhold safety deposits in certain circumstances, for instance if tenants did not give notice they were moving.

    Colson said the proposal would make it tougher for people like her who earn just enough to squeak by, but not enough to qualify for state housing assistance. The recession is exacerbating the financial pressure she feels.

    "It's getting worse," Colson said. "People are getting pretty desperate."

    Szorcsha Sutherland, who lives with three of her children in subsidized housing in Williamstown, says she fell behind in her rent this year. Car repairs and debts left her strapped, she said.

    "I knew I was in serious trouble with my landlord and facing eviction," she said.

    Finally, a little over a week ago, she was able to get together enough money to pay her landlord back, Sutherland said.

    If the new bill becomes law, in some cases tenants would not be able to avoid eviction by settling up their back rent with a landlord.

    A tenant who has received three notices of non-payment of rent in the last year could not stop the process of being removed from their rental, even if they paid their back rent and interest.

    "To me there don't seem to be enough (tenant) rights as it is. Where are people who are poor supposed to go?" Sutherland says.


    Patty Prince of Morrisville wonders why landlords don't have more rights with regard to the property they own.

    Prince and her husband own 12 rental units across Northern Vermont, from St. Johnsbury to Hardwick to Winooski.

    They have been in the business for about four years, and have gone through seven eviction proceedings in the last year. They tried to follow Christian teachings and help people who were down on their luck by renting them apartments. But in several cases tenants damaged their properties intentionally in order to file building code violation complains, or even threatened them when they asked for rent, Prince said. In all, those seven tenants cost them $25,000 in lost rent, legal bills and repairs, even though the couple did much of the repair work and pursued the eviction proceedings themselves, Prince said.

    "We can't help people any more, or we won't have a business left," Prince said. "We put them in there and then they don't pay the rent."

    "If you ask them for the rent they threaten you," Prince added. "Those crying people who need you are viscous vipers."

    It's not just her rentals properties that have suffered damage, Prince said.

    "After you are in it a year or two you are just jaded. It is one of the toughest businesses there is," she said.

    So now before renting to someone she conducts background checks through the courts, asks to see paychecks, and an employment record. Prince even videotapes would-be renters who say they will pay the rent and not damage the property.

    Prince says the bill now in the Legislature tinkers around the edges. She believes lawmakers should make wholesale changes to help landlords, she said.

    "Ninety-five percent of the tenants are good tenants. It is the 5 percent or 10 percent that really raises Cain," said Joseph Giancola, who owns hundreds of residential and commercial rental properties around Rutland. "They trash apartments. They affect the other tenants in the building. The longer they are there the more problems you are going to have."

    "The biggest problem is trying to keep harmony in the building," Giancola said.

    Drug dealing can be a problem in buildings, because if the tenant responsible pays the rent, it can be difficult for a landlord to get rid of them, landlords said.

    And once such activity starts it can be tougher to get tenants into the building, landlords said.

    "It's very difficult. I have no grounds for eviction. It's my word against their word," Giancola said. "Most people think the landlords control the tenants. I don't control the tenants."

    But Giancola acknowledges that both landlords and tenants can create problems.

    "It's a two-way street. Some landlords are not good and some tenants are not good," he concluded. "Each situation is different."


    The law is supposed to apply equally in all situations, however.

    Erhard Mahnke of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, whose group represents both landlords and tenants, supports the bill, but he has some reservations about it.

    "Our goal is to maintain a balance between landlords' and tenants' rights," Mahnke said. "Some of our members felt the balance currently tilts too far toward tenants."

    The bill "will help good landlords deal with some of the bad tenant situations they find themselves in," Mahnke said. "That said, bad landlords will be able to use some of the provisions of the bill against otherwise good tenants."

    Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, chairman of the Senate's housing committee, which sponsored the bill, says the changes are needed.

    "Part of the housing crisis is the inability of landlords to collect from non-paying tenants, or evict tenants who are causing mayhem in housing complexes," said Illuzzi, who also owns some rental property. "It is as difficult to evict those troublemakers as to evict someone who is not paying the rent."

    "There is no incentive for anyone to own rental property in Vermont," he said.

    Another member of Illuzzi's committee, Sen. Doug Racine, a Chittenden County Democrat, said the landlord-tenant bill is not being passed in a vacuum. The housing bill passed by the House which is now in the Senate includes additional housing code and state inspection provisions that will benefit tenants, said Racine.

    Presently, only 1 percent to 2 percent of the state's 74,000 units are inspected annually, and then only when a complaint is received. Supporters of the provision say the measure would improve fire safety and decrease the lead hazards that pose such a danger to Vermont children.

    "If you take the two of them together I think there is a good balance," he said. "If the two bills pass we will have improved the lives of both tenants and landlords."

    Christopher Curtis, a Vermont Legal Aid attorney who assisted both Sutherland and Colson, cites statistics on evictions, from the Chittenden County court. In 2007, he said, there were close to 339 evictions in the state's most populous county. About 40 percent or 133 of them were default judgments against the tenants. Another 52 cases were resolved by mutual agreement and 58 were dismissed.

    Landlords are represented by lawyers in 95 percent of such cases, while only 12 percent of tenants have legal representations. The rest present their own cases as pro se litigants, said Jack McCullough, another legal aid attorney who testified against the bill.

    "Rental housing is unaffordable for more and more Vermonters. What we are going to see is more homelessness, and we already have the highest rate in New England," said Karen Richards of Vermont Legal Aid.

    But Stuart Bennett director of the Vermont Apartment Owners Association said in eviction cases he would rather face a tenant with a lawyer than without one.

    "My experience is that when a tenant walks into the court pro se the courts fall all over themselves to give them more time and more explanations than when they are represented," Bennett said.

    The changes the bill would make for instance, only requiring landlords to prove they sent notices are needed, he said.

    "Should somebody be able to avoid the effect of a notice by simply not opening the door, but not accepting certified mail?" he said.

    And the idea that landlords enter into evictions any more readily than tenants is silly, he said. It is a painful process, and in most cases (some of which can take months) the landlord is lucky to get any of the back rent owed unless it is set aside in court escrow accounts during the dispute.

    "The last thing a landlord wants is an empty apartment. You don't try to evict people unless the relationship is completely disintegrating," Bennett said. "An eviction is like a root canal. It costs you money to hurt, you don't do it for fun. It's like a divorce and it can be as messy and emotional on both sides."
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