Winooski has a just-cause eviction charter change on the ballot. Here's what it means.
Winooski residents will vote on just cause eviction charter change on Town Meeting Day − a fresh attempt at passing protections for tenants at a local level in Chittenden County.
The charter change, if approved by voters, the state Legislature and the governor, would make it harder for landlords to force tenants out of housing and would give tenants more rights when evicted.
Tenant-rights advocates in Winooski are pushing for the charter change to prevent events like last year's threatened eviction at 300 Main St. in Winooski which would have displaced 24 families. Small landlords, however, are concerned about how the charter change would make it harder to manage properties and unintentionally drive up rents.
What the charter change would do
Winooski's just-cause eviction charter change proposal was created to protect tenants from being forced out of rental housing unfairly. De-facto evictions due to extreme rent hikes or a landlord choosing not to renew a tenants lease for no stated reason would no longer be allowed if the charter change passes. Landlords would be able to evict tenants only if they broke the rules of a lease, violated state laws on residential tenants' obligations, failed to pay rent or rejected renewal terms.
Certain property types would be exempt from the new rules. Landlords who sublet, rent spaces within their own homes or rent out units in a duplex or triplex they live in do not have to follow just-cause eviction rules. If a landlord takes a unit off the market due to it needing substantial renovations or becoming their own primary residence or an immediate family member's, the unit would also be exempt.
Because the charter change only gives Winooski City Council the power to make an ordinance with these guidelines and does not put them into place automatically, details on some topics remain vague, like a new requirement on "adequate notice and reasonable relocation expenses" when tenants are evicted for a just cause. Another section reads "limit unreasonable rent increases to prevent de facto evictions or nonrenewal, although this shall not be construed to limit rents beyond the purpose of preventing individual evictions."
When the City Council writes the ordinance, councilors would decide how to define "adequate notice" and "reasonable." Read the full charter change here: https://winooskivt.gov/justcause.
The charter change petitioned before Winooski voters follows Burlington's attempted just-cause eviction charter change almost word for word. Burlington's attempt to change their charter last year was approved by voters and the state Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott.
Essex voters will also vote on a charter change this March to allow their Selectboard to write an ordinance that would instate just-cause eviction rules.
Advocates and critics
The just cause eviction measurer aims to prevent tenants from losing housing unjustly, but some landlords argue that situations usually aren't as clear-cut as what the charter change implies.
Brian Sweeney, who rents out two units in Winooski, spoke at a Jan. 26 public hearing on the charter change. Sweeney is concerned the charter change would cause him to evict more people and said he's heard from landlord friends that going through the formal process of evicting a tenant can be arduous and expensive. He said landlords sometimes choose to not renew a tenant's lease to retain other tenants who do not like a problem tenant's behavior, even though the behavior doesn't break the rules of the lease.
"There's certain times when it's just not a good fit but maybe it's not an evictable offense," Sweeney said. "There's too many grey areas."
He brought up a made-up scenario of a tenant having Nazi memorabilia on a wall and not feeling comfortable renewing the tenant's lease but having to if the charter change passes. He also worries about the ambiguity of limiting "unreasonable rent increases."
"I don't want to increase costs because of the risks associated with this, that's my biggest fear," Sweeney said. "For the larger slumlords, let's be honest, there should be more controls implemented in some way, I don't know what it is but I don't think it's this."
David Weissberger, also at the public hearing, spoke about his experience renting out the detached cottage in his backyard. He said he wasn't comfortable with the first tenant they had, both because of how the tenant interacted with his family and the fact that he was most likely smoking, which was a violation of the lease, but was hard to prove. Weissberger chose not to allow the tenant to renew their lease because it was easier than trying to evict him.
Others at the public hearing advocated for the charter change, including renter Meghan Tedder who was forced out of her last apartment because her rent more than doubled. She spoke against landlords using the phrases "not a good fit" or "we don't want those types of people living in our building" to disqualify or evict tenants.
"We have, for years, used that language to overshadow discrimination," Tedder said "Things like 'not a good fit' is a very opinionated term and has led to discrimination and racial segregation in our housing for decades now."
She acknowledged the high cost of evicting tenants, but pushed back on voting against the measure for that reason.
"It may be easier to not renew but I don't think that convenience is more important than basic protections for renters from being displaced," Tedder said.
Winooski's charter change, if passed by voters, might not make it to the Legislature this session because of a procedural snafu that will cause the need for a "validation vote" after Town Meeting Day. If passed by the Legislature, Winooski City Council would then have to vote on an ordinance to put the just-cause eviction rules in place.
Contact Urban Change Reporter Lilly St. Angelo at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @lilly_st_ang.
This article originally appeared on Burlington Free Press: Just cause eviction measure on Winooski Town Meeting Day ballot