Thursday, May 12 2022
Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday vetoed a law that would have banned “without cause” evictions in Burlington. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

An effort to ban ‘no cause’ evictions in Burlington encountered a major speed bump on Tuesday, as Gov. Phil Scott vetoed legislation to give city leaders the power to enact tougher restrictions on rental accommodation.

H.708, an amendment to the Burlington City Charter, would empower city councilors to enact an ordinance limiting when landlords could evict or not renew a tenant’s lease. The measure passed 63% of Burlington voters in March 2021, and then passed the Vermont House and Senate (with some adjustments) this year.

With Scott’s rejection, the future of the charter change is now uncertain. It would take a two-thirds majority in both houses of the legislature to override the veto.

In the House vote on February 18, the measure received 98 votes, although two of the body’s 150 members were absent. The bill was approved by the Senate on April 7 in a voice vote, but at least a handful of dissent could be heard among the 30-member body.

Since the bill originated in the House, that House would have to override the Governor’s veto before the Senate could make an attempt.

As of Tuesday night, House leaders had yet to meet to discuss whether they would try to override their veto, said Connor Kennedy, spokesman for House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington.

The Senate is preparing for a possible waiver attempt, according to Carolyn Wesley, spokeswoman for Senate Pro Tempore Speaker Becca Balint, D-Windham.

“Sen. Balint is a strong supporter of the Charter and will count the votes on the Senate side,” Wesley said in a statement.

The charter change, in Scott’s view, threatened to worsen the state’s housing crisis.

“By making it extremely difficult for tenants to remove tenants from rental accommodation, even at the end of a signed lease, I fear this bill will discourage landlords from renting to vulnerable potential tenants, or renting out their units.” , wrote Scott. in a letter to lawmakers explaining his veto.

“Greater preference will be given to renters with high credit scores, no criminal history and positive references from previous landlords, creating further disparity for Vermonters,” Scott said.

Instead of embracing the charter change, the governor said, his administration was tackling the state’s affordable housing problem by encouraging more residential property development.

“We need to build new and revitalized homes faster, support permit exemptions in designated areas, and stop making it increasingly expensive to rent, own, build, and live in Vermont,” Scott said in the letter.

Scott’s claims run counter to arguments made by the bill’s supporters, who argue that the legislation would save vulnerable tenants from unwarranted evictions by landlords.

“It’s a bogus debate,” said Burlington City Councilwoman Zoraya Hightower, P-Ward 1, a leading supporter of the charter change, after the veto was announced Tuesday. “People are using racial justice, the language of social justice to criticize something that would undoubtedly support vulnerable tenants.”

Proponents of the charter change also noted that several municipalities and states across the country have already imposed restrictions on “wrongful evictions,” apparently without serious effects on housing markets.

“It’s not like, ‘Wow, Vermont is going to pass this cutting-edge new law,'” Rep. Barbara Rachelson, D-Burlington, said of the measure during a House debate earlier this year.

As passed by the Legislative Assembly, the charter amendment would ultimately prohibit landlords from evicting a tenant, not offering a lease renewal, or raising the rent enough to cause a “de facto eviction.” “, with some exceptions.

Committing a crime on the rental property, breaching his lease (including non-payment of rent) and “harming the health and safety of other tenants, the landlord or the landlord’s representative” would all be considered a ” just cause”. for which a landlord could evict a tenant, according to the bill.

Additionally, landlords can choose not to renew a lease if the landlord or an immediate family member plans to occupy the unit, or if the unit “requires major renovations that prevent occupancy,” states the legislation. Duplexes and triplexes where an owner lives in one of the units would be exempt from the order.

The bill says landlords can choose not to extend a tenant’s lease for a “reasonable probationary period” after they move in, but doesn’t define “reasonable.”

If a landlord evicts or does not renew a tenant’s lease, the order created by the charter amendment would require the landlord to provide the tenant with a relocation allowance that cannot exceed the value of one month’s rent. The order is also meant to “mitigate potential impacts on small landowners”.

After the veto was announced Tuesday night, Hightower and other charter change supporters called on voters across the state to ask their lawmakers to overrule it.

“Anyone who lives in Burlington knows we need it,” Hightower told VTDigger. “I think some people in the House and the Senate who don’t live in Burlington…don’t know that.”

Rights & Democracy, a progressive interest group that campaigned on behalf of the charter change in Burlington, lambasted Scott in a statement and vowed to rally the support needed to override his veto.

“With this veto, (Scott) is showing his blatant disregard for municipal rule when he disagrees with how municipalities use their democratic power,” housing organizer Tom Proctor said in a statement. . “It also shows that he has no interest in protecting the fundamental right to safe, affordable and secure housing for low-income Vermonters.”

When asked what the city council might do if the veto override fails, Hightower declined to speculate.

“Unfortunately, the city has no more authority than the charter gives us,” she said, “so we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

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