Just Cause Eviction concerns: Will proposed charter change allow rent control?

Published: Dec. 23, 2020 at 1:19 AM EST|Updated: Dec. 23, 2020 at 4:46 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Questions are being raised about Burlington’s newly passed Just Cause Eviction Charter Change resolution. It now heads to a Town Meeting Day vote in March but some councilors have concerns about possible legal challenges down the road.

The question is: Can the city of Burlington impose rent control if the voters and the Legislature say yes to the Just Cause Eviction charter change?

Councilor Joan Shannon, P-South District, who is one of two councilors who voted against the resolution, argues the charter change would allow that.

“The way the rent control presents here is that it’s going to be on an individual basis decided by the courts,” she said. “So, you don’t know — you cannot increase your rents an unreasonable amount for the purpose of getting your tenant out.”

She’s referring to a line in the resolution that states “the ordinance may include provisions that limit unreasonable rent increases due to de facto evictions or nonrenewals.”

“Twenty-five dollars may be deemed an unreasonable increase and in another case, maybe $200 is deemed a reasonable increase,” Shannon said. “It’s not defined and it will be defined by the courts on an individual basis. And that’s concerning.”

Councilor Brian Pine, P-Ward 3, argues the purpose of that clause is to protect renters against being evicted for no reason.

“So, that’s really what we’re getting at. If you attempt to close the loophole for no-cause evictions but you don’t address rent increases, you’re really not addressing the issue. You’re just kicking the can down the road,” he said.

Legal expert Jared Carter took a look at the resolution. He says rent control is when the city puts a specific cap on the rental market in a particular neighborhood or set of buildings, and he says it doesn’t appear that’s what this resolution allows. However, he says it does put constraints on what a landlord can charge in a lease renewal situation.

“Where a tenant’s contract or lease has ended, it would prevent a landlord from unreasonably increasing rent with the purpose of essentially stopping that tenant from re-signing a new lease or with the purpose of having to go through the eviction process,” Carter said.

Carter interprets that provision to be more about rent stabilization than rent control.

“It’s not preventing a landlord from increasing rent. That’s what rent control is. This is simply saying a landlord can’t use unreasonable rental increases as a workaround to evict individual tenants and it is on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

The Just Cause Eviction Charter Change must be approved by the voters first, then the Legislature, and then Gov. Phil Scott in order for it to become city law.

If it does get approved, the City Council will go back and write an ordinance that will further clarify the regulations.

Related Stories:

Burlington passes ‘Just Cause Eviction’ charter change resolution

Burlington committee considers remedy to prevent rental evictions

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