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City Meeting Ballot Will Include ‘Just Cause’ Eviction Charter Change

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A petition to enact a charter change allowing the Montpelier City Council to enact a “just-cause” eviction ordinance to enhance tenant’s rights has been submitted to the city and will be on the ballot in Montpelier on March 5, according to City Clerk John Odom. 

If an ordinance is passed, tenants could not be evicted without cause at the end of their lease and, if they wanted to stay, any rent increase could not be “unreasonable,” a term that would have to be defined by the City Council.

Vermont law currently allows “no-cause” evictions at the end of a lease, although landlords can currently go to court to evict tenants during the term of the lease for such infractions as non-payment of rent and violating the terms of the lease. 

These reasons for eviction would be maintained in an ordinance, but the ballot item states “such ordinance shall exclude from ‘just cause’ the expiration of a rental agreement as sole grounds for termination of the tenancy.”

In essence, the ordinance envisioned by the Montpelier charter change would eliminate no-cause evictions, eliminate most lease terminations, and prevent landlords from raising rents more than a certain amount.

The petition, which garnered signatures from more than the required 5% of voters, was submitted by residents who received help and guidance from Rights and Democracy (RAD), according to Montpelier resident Joe Moore, one of the petition organizers. 

Rights and Democracy is an organization pursuing a “healthy, just, and equitable future” for communities in Vermont and New Hampshire according to its website. It is seeking to develop a new generation of leaders, “particularly those that have been most impacted by systems of oppression.”

Moore, who is not a tenant, said he is not a member of Rights and Democracy but is a member of the Central Vermont Democratic Socialists of America. He said he feels strongly about the issue and organized the petition drive with others.

“We have seen an increase in evictions across the state,” Moore said. In Montpelier, where nearly 50% of the housing units are rentals, “tenants are experiencing housing insecurity, face relatively high rents and low vacancy rates, and then the flood made things worse.”

The charter change says some properties would be excluded from any just-cause ordinance, including sublets; in-unit rentals; owner-occupied duplexes and triplexes; properties being withdrawn from the rental market, including properties to be occupied by the owners or an immediate family member as a primary residence; accessory dwelling units on the same property as a single-family owner-occupied home; and those properties in need of substantial renovations that preclude occupancy.

The language in the charter change is modeled after one that passed by a 2 to 1 margin in Burlington in 2021, then was sent to the Legislature for approval. The Legislature approved the measure in 2022, but Gov. Phil Scott vetoed it, and a veto override failed by one vote.

Last year, just-cause eviction statutes were on the ballot in Brattleboro, Essex, and Winooski. The ballot item failed in Brattleboro, but passed in the other two communities. Their charter changes are still pending in the Legislature.

The charter change language varied last year. Brattleboro’s aimed to put a 12% annual cap on rent increases, while Essex reportedly passed a very short charter change that left most details to the municipal government. 

Just-cause eviction reforms have already been enacted in New Hampshire and the three west coast states as well as Montreal, although the approaches vary. The New Hampshire law protects month-to-month tenants from being evicted without just cause, but does not appear to have a limit on rent increases. In Montreal, disputes over rent increases are settled by a city tribunal.

Moore said the Montpelier petition did not include a definition of “reasonable rent” because “any time you put a number on a ballot measure, some people will be angry and some not, so leaving it to the elected City Council was a strategic choice.” Personally, he said he thought an increase tied to the inflation rate, such as the Consumer Price Index plus 1% or 2%, would be reasonable.

While the charter change would simply provide the Council with the “power” to enact a just-cause ordinance, Moore believes it would not be optional. “I think the Council would be compelled to do something at some point,” he said.

The charter change does direct what such an ordinance “shall” include, although some things are not entirely clear. One provision said the ordinance exemptions would be “subject to mitigation provisions,” whatever those may be. It also states that the ordinance shall include “reasonable relocation expenses,” but it is not clear when those would kick in for a tenant.

So far, it appears Montpelier is the only Vermont municipality that will have such a charter change on the ballot this year, Moore said, although he thinks it will happen in the future in other towns. “It should happen in Barre as well, but they didn’t have enough folks ready and willing to collect signatures,” he said.

Moore said his group collected most of its signatures at the Montpelier farmers market. Eight out of 10 people were willing to sign the petition, he said, and “we received many positive responses.”

Local landlords may have a different opinion of the idea. In the lead-up to the Brattleboro vote, landlords said the proposed charter change would remove the leverage they need for removing drug dealers and tenants who create problems on their property, according to a Feb. 12, 2023 story in VTDigger.

“If a tenant is behaving badly, no-cause eviction is a way for us, at the end of the lease, to say, ‘Sorry, this isn’t working out, we’re not going to renew your lease and you have to move on,’” one landlord told VTDigger.

If the ordinance went into effect, the landlord said, “What would happen is that landlords would have to become really, really strict as to who they let into their buildings. Because once you’ve brought somebody into your building, there’ll be no way to get them out.”

Angela Zaikowski, director of the Vermont Landlord Association, said just-cause eviction ordinances could be a hardship for other tenants of a building, who would have to put up with difficult neighbors who cannot be evicted. She also called the rent provisions in the ordinances “de facto rent control,” which she said has led to a decline in rental housing quality where rent control exists and could discourage new apartment construction.

Vermont already has fairly strong tenant protections, but Moore argues the ordinance would add teeth to them. “If someone is evicted for no reason, that puts the burden on the tenant to prove there was discrimination, for example,” he said. “The benefit of a just-cause eviction ordinance is that it bolsters the enforcement of existing tenant protections and anti-discrimination laws.”

The charter change is expected to be the subject of public hearings before the City Council on Jan. 24 and Feb. 1, although it will appear on the ballot in any case.