Vt. eviction moratorium extension impacts renters, landlords

Published: Mar. 15, 2021 at 5:49 PM EDT
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BARRE, Vt. (WCAX) - One year into the pandemic and some Vermonters remain in crisis over housing.

In May 2020, Gov. Phil Scott signed into law an eviction moratorium that is tied to the COVID-19 state of emergency. Since then, it’s had an impact on both renters and landlords.

Steve Restelli rents out a 100-year-old home on Merchant Street in Barre. Even before the pandemic struck last spring, his tenants had stopped paying rent. Restelli tried to evict them for nonpayment but the eviction moratorium was enacted, which was meant to keep people out of shelters where COVID-19 could spread. Restelli was stuck with his tenants, and the house then became a drug hub.

“When you have tenants that are dealing drugs, you have to prove there’s a crime before you can get them out,” Restelli said.

The tenants were finally arrested on drug charges, and he’s now left on the hook for an estimated $50,000 in damage including a chunk out of the ceiling from a shotgun blast, a broken fence, rotting food, burst pipes that buckled the hardwood floors, broken windows and leftover needles in the bedroom.

Ten months since the moratorium went into effect, advocates say it’s still needed to help those struggling with unemployment, so they don’t lose the roof over their heads.

“The reason so many renting households are burdened is that Vermont has low median incomes and relatively high rent,” said Jean Murray, a staff attorney with Vermont Legal Aid.

In addition to the moratorium, about 15,000 renters and 3,000 landlords have received financial help from the state to pay rent and mortgages. That program is slated to get another $200 million from the American Rescue Plan. Restelli could have turned to the state for help, but he was told he’d have to forgive half of the overdue rent and all of the damage.

Leaders say this funding is critical to keep people in their homes, but it doesn’t address underlying problems like the need for more apartments and houses during a pandemic-fueled housing crunch.

“We need to break down some of the barriers that prevent housing from being built and we need capital dollars to invest in housing production to invest in all income levels,” said Josh Hanford, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development

Murray says Vermont could create a more stable housing market by supporting renters and landlords by keeping the rental assistance program. According to a study conducted before the pandemic, it was estimated to cost about $800,000 every year.

Restelli plans to clean up the house and keep it on the market, but until then, he wishes there was a way to better mediate landlord-renter issues.

“Most people can solve problems by talking, but when you can’t talk, when there’s an eviction moratorium, when you can’t even present anything as a landlord, you have nothing. You have no rights. You have a house that gets destroyed and you’re helpless,” Restelli said.

Unlike at the federal level, Vermont’s eviction moratorium will be in place as long as the state of emergency plus 30 days.

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