BENNINGTON -- Heather Osgood is a mother of two: A 4-year old and a 15-month old. She currently lives with her mom and said that she has had difficulty renting in the past. On Thursday, she went to her second Bennington Renters 101 class to help her get a jump on finding an apartment.
"It is a difficult situation," Osgood said. "I heard about this, and I thought it was a good opportunity to be able to get out into my own place. I thought I could learn more about finance and expectations of keeping an apartment."
Renters 101 is a five-week-long course that started on March 27. The class is offered free of charge by the poverty work group that is a part of the Bennington Housing Committee. The last two classes will be April 17 and 24 from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at the Second Congregational Church, 115 Hillside St.
The class helps people learn how to look for, and what to look for, in an apartment as well as how to protect their rights as renters.
"Folks may be new to renting, don't have the skill set, or are desperate to get a place and don't know how to protect their own interests," said Joy Kitchell, a member of the housing committee.
Each week, participants learn about a new topic on responsible home-renting strategies from a facilitator who is well-versed on that subject. This week, Maureen O'Reilly, an attorney for Vermont Legal Aid, spoke to individuals about what renters' rights and responsibilities are under the law.
At the end of each session, the facilitator signs a certificate showing that individuals have attended a class. The number of signatures on the certificate displays the number of classes the individual attended.
"They have something to show their prospective landlords that they are trying to improve their renter skills," said the class coordinator, Denise Main. A few landlords told the housing committee that between two possible renters with similar history, they would take tenant who has taken the class and presents the certificate.
The class also teaches renters about their rights and responsibilities. Tenants can be charged out of their security deposit for unpaid rent or utilities, damages beyond normal wear and tear and for disposal of left items.
In many states, there are formal laws for cleanliness, habitability and rules for submitting a damage report to avoid being mischarged from their security deposit at the end of their tenancy.
In Vermont, a residential lease agreement implies that an apartment should be clean, safe and fit for habitation, which simply means that the property should be in compliance with all building and safety codes. There are no formal rules for submitting reports on habitat conditions.
O'Reilly talked with class participants about going through their own checklist to write a damage report. "Go through it room by room. Even though it's not governed by law, it's a good idea to give an inspection to the landlord in a timely manner," she said.
O'Reilly said potential renters should consider the conditions before signing a rental agreement. "I'm a homeowner now, but I was a renter for many years. I've moved into apartments that were pristine because that's the way landlords liked to turn them over, and I have moved into apartments that have been less than pristine."
The housing committee met with landlords from the Bennington community last spring to ask their perspective on what they see as needs for renting to challenging tenants. "What could our community do to give challenging renters the skills they need to become successful renters? (To answer that), we carved this program out, which is really hands on and made us feel like we were really doing something," Kitchell said.
Main said that they plan to offer the same workshop again in the fall. "After trying to do a number of groups, this one has been the most committed," she said. "We have had a lot of good response. People have shown up, they're asking questions. This is really filling a need."
Osgood said she now has better prospects for finding a home for herself and her two children.
"I think (renting) is going to be a lot easier. For one, to get all of this information, and second to have this certificate, I think is going to benefit me a lot in the long run."
Contact Tom Momberg at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomMomberg