Despite regulations intended to protect them from substandard housing conditions, many Vermont tenants still live in unsafe and unhealthy homes. Today, Vermont Legal Aid released a report, Renters at Risk: The Cost of Substandard Housing, to examine the problem and call for policy solutions to address substandard housing.
The report was the result of data analysis and interviews with tenants, advocates, and public officials. Our key findings are as follows.
1. Tenants who suffer from the various impacts of unsafe and unhealthy housing conditions experience increased health care usage, mental health problems, disruption to school and work, and homelessness.
2. The most common problems tenants face are pests and plumbing problems.
3. Threat of eviction and lack of affordable housing options often prevent tenants from reporting rental housing health code violations.
4. Town health officers are commonly unpaid volunteers without the time or experience necessary to address health code violations.
5. We can and should make changes to our code enforcement system.
In our report, the voices of nine tenants in the struggle for healthy housing reveal the long-lasting impacts of substandard housing. It is clear that their experiences with inadequate housing conditions are not isolated instances – many other renters throughout Vermont suffer serious problems in their rented homes. For example, Amberly, a tenant in Rutland, had to live with a severe rat infestation (see attached photo). It appeared that they were coming into her home from the outside through the basement. Amberly set traps and did what she could, but had to live with rats -- in her home, in her kitchen, chewing on her possessions – for months before she could move out. Amberly developed hives and other medical issues in addition to handling the plain stress of a rat infesation, all while trying to juggle work and raising two small children.
“This kind of situation is too common, and it is not just a problem for tenants,” according to Maryellen Griffin, one of the attorneys at Vermont Legal Aid who worked with lead author Tessa Horan on the report. “These problems also hurt good landlords, towns, and taxpayers. The medical costs, the downward pressure on property values, the risk that the rats will continue to multiply and migrate to other buildings, not to mention the human suffering – these are problems for all of us. Allowing our housing stock to continue to degrade threatens the health of our residents as well as the tax base and the viability and vibrancy of our towns.”
We are proposing legislation to address this issue using three strategies:
1. Strengthen Town Health Officers’ authority to issue orders and enforce them, and make it unlawful to re-rent an apartment if the landlord has not complied with the orders.
2. Direct the Department of Health to provide more coordinated support to Town Health Officers.
3. Create a statewide database of rental housing to collect better data about the problem.
As Jonathan Bond from Vermont Tenants Inc. said in the report, “If we’re going to have a really basic health code, I would like to see the basic health code being enforced, and right now it’s just not being enforced.”
To read our full report and list of recommendations to address the impacts of substandard housing on Vermont tenants, visit our website at http://www.vtlegalaid.org/renters-at-risk.