Vt. officials look to streamline renter rebate program

Published: Jan. 28, 2020 at 5:25 PM EST
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More money could be heading your way if you rent in Vermont. In his budget address, Governor Phil Scott promised an overhaul of the renter rebate program.

Like many of his peers, Scott Miley rents an apartment in Burlington not too far from downtown. He says Burlington rent isn't cheap. "There's a lot of people who could just do a little bit better," he said.

Miley wouldn't mind a few extra bucks to put away, but he hasn't filed for the state's renters' rebate in years because he previously had roommates, and with everyone's jobs they made more than the $47,000 household income set by the state. "It's kind of an odd position to be doing just well enough to pay rent but not doing well enough to get a rebate back," he said.

About 76,000 people rent in Vermont. Of those, the tax department thinks about 45,000 could apply for a renter's rebate, but only about 12,000 actually got one. The reason people don't apply? They told us it's just too complicated.

Tax Department Policy Director Doug Farnham says in 2017, they started looking at what they could do better. "Renter rebate came out on the top of the list as far as inefficiency goes," Farnham said.

It caused them most calls from frustrated tax filers. Farnham agrees that it's too complicated. So, their department is working with lawmakers right now to fix that.

"We think that this could save Vermonters and the department a lot of time and frustration," Farnham said.

We went to check the tax return booklet and see what that actually looks like. And what happens is that this renter rebate claim -- this form gets a lot easier to fill out. And this one here, this household income form -- that doesn't even exist

"Right now it's extremely customized to someone's individual situation," Farnham said.

He says the new system would be more standardized. It would be based on tax filing status. So, no more hounding your housemates for financial information. You won't need a form from your landlord. And, the rebate amount would be set by county, so low-income renters in higher-cost areas like Chittenden County could get more help. Overall, Farnham says more aid would shift to very low income people and families.

"If you're single it'll generally phase out at under $30,000," Farnham said.

Miley says he will likely try to file for a rebate this year, but that he'll probably end up calling the department for help. "It's a lot to figure out. Of course, everyone likes to think they're a smart person, but you really shouldn't need a PhD to file your taxes or do a renters rebate. It shouldn't be that hard," he said.

The House Ways & Means Committee is looking at the proposal now, so none of these changes would take effect for this tax filing season, but they're hoping to have them in place for next year.

Officials say they actually haven't been giving out all the money that was set aside for rebates -- only $8.5 million of the $9.5 million they have budgeted. They estimate their changes will reach another 1,500 and dole out about a million bucks. So, they won't need any funding increase immediately. Down the line if a lot more people apply, that could change.