WCAX Investigates: Nightmare on Church Street

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Police bodycam images from last August show officers swarming an apartment building at 184 Church Street after a 911 call for a domestic dispute with injuries. WCAX News was outside the building as cops hauled away one guy and treated another for a puncture wound. At the time, police told us 184 Church Street is the number one address Burlington Police get called to, a so-called nuisance property.

"Not all properties are created equal. There are properties that we receive more criminal complaints than others," Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said.

This one tops the list. It's owned by the Handy family's Sisters & Brothers Investment Group. The 26 tenants made more than 140 calls to police in 2015, tying up critical resources.

"They wish they didn't always get that call. That doesn't mean there's not a genuine problem there," del Pozo said.

"People just mess with people's lives," said Joseph "Birdman" Allen, who says he's had urine and feces thrown on him by a neighbor. "So I call the police all the time."

"We have had reports of machete fights, knife fights and someone had a gun. It's very difficult to tell people, 'Don't call police,'" said David Greenberg, a lawyer for the landlord.

Greenberg says in 2016, code enforcement sent a letter identifying 184 Church as a "problem property" due to several incidents requiring "city intervention." He says if his clients couldn't get the calls to stop, the city threatened consequences like suspending their right to rent.

"We were sending notices to everybody-- a written notice to everybody that we must not have this type of behavior," Greenberg said.

Greenberg says when the warnings didn't work, eviction was the only option left, given the pressure from the city to end the disruptions.

"The only way we can see, is we need to pick out the people that they keep identifying as causing trouble," he said.

Greenberg sent eight so-called troublemakers eviction notices. And that's when things went from bad to worse. One of those tenants sued the city and won in December.

"The goal of the city was for the landlord to improve their property, not for them to retaliate against tenants," said Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington.

Now, the city and the cops are putting the blame back on the landlord. They say while the building is up to code, it's run-down and easy to trespass and deal drugs, making it a haven for crime.

"We also expect collaboration and cooperation on the part of a landlord. We don't want our landlords evicting people because those people are fighting with other people in the building," del Pozo said.

But those who dodged the evictions admit life is more peaceful now.

"I'm more safer," Allen said. "We the tenants in here, we're getting along a little bit better."

"It's a difficult building but it does serve a purpose," Greenberg said.

A one-bedroom in the building goes for about $800 in a part of the city where one-bedrooms typically rent for more than $1,400. Greenberg says his clients rent to the mentally ill, the drug addicts, the sex offenders and the criminals most landlords turn away. He claims even the swankiest building wouldn't solve the problems the city is asking his clients to.

"My client, and almost any landlord in Burlington does not have the social services and skills to deal with the problems that this particular type of apartment house brings with it," Greenberg said.

He says if the city pushes too hard, landlords who rent to troubled, low-income tenants could decide it's not worth the hassle and instead invest in luxury apartments with jacked up rents. A move that would likely put tenants like John Bartlett, who got an apartment here because of an eviction, out on the street.

"Fridge empty... poor as a mouse," Bartlett said. "As we can see, there are holes in the cheese."

We checked in with police about call volume since those so-called troublemaker tenants were kicked out-- just 69 calls last year. That's half of what it was when they lived in the building.