Housing costs

BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro selectboard indicated Tuesday that it will resume deliberations on a measure that would bar landlords from requiring tenants to pay the last month’s rent when they sign a lease.

The five-member board had tabled the draft ordinance, which a local tenants union says would improve housing affordability, at its Oct. 20 meeting, when it heard concerns from town staff about its enforceability. Several Brattleboro landlords also expressed opposition to the measure last month, with some claiming that without a substantial up-front financial commitment, they would offer leases only to wealthier people — reducing housing accessibility for low-income renters.

After previously voting to advance the proposal, board member Daniel Quipp said at that meeting the testimony “gave [him] pause” and joined Chairman Tim Wessel and Vice-Chair Elizabeth McLoughlin in opposing it. The selectboard asked town staff to prepare alternative housing-affordability measures instead.

After hearing several of those ideas Tuesday, however, Quipp expressed interest in reconsidering the draft ordinance. The measure was proposed in August by the Tenants Union of Brattleboro and would limit the up-front costs of a lease to the first month’s rent and a security deposit equal to the monthly rent.

The board’s other members, Ian Goodnow and Brandie Starr, have indicated they support the proposal.

The selectboard did not formally agree to reconsider the proposal, but Town Manager Peter Elwell recommended the board put it on the agenda for one of the body’s December meetings.

To enact an ordinance, the selectboard must approve the measure at a first reading before adopting it after a public hearing and second reading at a later date.

It is unclear whether resuming deliberations of the security-deposit proposal, which the board tabled at its Oct. 20 first reading, would restart that process. Town Attorney Bob Fisher told board members he believes they should proceed with another first reading as a legal precaution and that he will look into the issue further.

“My concern would be [that] if you jump right to a second reading … you might give anyone who opposes your ordinance grounds to challenge it [if enacted],” he said.

Quipp’s interest in reviving the security-deposit measure appeared to surprise the selectboard while it was reviewing the research by municipal staff into alternative housing-affordability measures that it had requested last month.

Brattleboro Planning Director Sue Fillion presented those proposals, which included publicly and privately funded options.

One measure would establish a town-operated “landlord risk mitigation fund” that Fillion said could improve landlords’ financial security while easing financial burdens on renters. She explained that for a tenant enrolled in the program, it would reimburse their landlord for any tenant-caused damages not covered by a security deposit, nonpayment of rent or costs associated with tenant-related legal proceedings.

Fillion’s other proposals included offering subsidies to low-income renters to help them afford rent, similar to the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program, and also encouraging landlords to purchase insurance policies that would protect their tenant-related incomes.

Also on Tuesday, Fisher, the town attorney, informed the selectboard that federal Community Development Block Grants cannot be used to compensate landlords or renters for rent-related expenses.

Multiple board members had expressed interest on Oct. 20 in offering funds from that program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to landlords if a tenant fails to pay their last month’s rent or as loans to help renters afford up-front lease costs.

Fisher explained, however, that federal law prohibits municipalities from using CDBG funds for “income-type payments” that he said include food, clothing and housing costs.

“This section of the Code [of Federal Regulations] seems to answer the question quite clearly that CDBG funds cannot be used for any type of rent subsidy program whereby the funds are used for rent payments or mortgage payments,” he wrote to Elwell in a Nov. 5 memorandum posted on the town’s website before the selectboard meeting.

Wessel said Tuesday he feels it is unfair that CDBG funds can be used to support housing projects that benefit landlords but cannot be offered directly to tenants. He asked Fisher whether the town would be able to fund a landlord risk mitigation program, like the one proposed by Fillion, with CDBG money and bar landlords protected by that program from charging last month’s rent up front.

“I’m trying to figure out how we can kind of correct that [unfairness] while still staying within the legal system,” Wessel said.

Fisher responded that he was uncertain whether such an expenditure would be lawful and pledged to research the issue.

Quipp then proposed that the selectboard reconsider the security-deposit proposal, explaining that multiple renters had told him since the board’s Oct. 20 meeting that the measure would help them afford housing. He acknowledged that if enacted, the draft ordinance could threaten landlords’ financial security but noted his eagerness to provide assistance for “cost-burdened” renters.

“This proposal will improve the lives of tenants, and it will also put some landlords in a potentially riskier position,” he said.

Quipp said he is optimistic, though, that it would ultimately improve housing affordability.

Caleb Symons can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1420, or csymons@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @CalebSymonsKS.