MONTPELIER — A bill addressing renter health and safety and providing incentives for the purchase and updating of the state’s unused rental units will be considered by the Vermont Senate when it convenes later this month.
The bill, S. 79, passed both the House and the Senate. But the House passed the bill on third reading on the final day of the 2021 formal session, leaving no time to send it back to the Senate for final concurrence.
A motion in the House to suspend the rules and send it to the Senate was defeated, with House Republicans, opposed to its proposal for a mandatory rental unit registry, unified in voting against that procedural move.
State Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint was asked about the possibility of taking up S. 79 on Wednesday, at a Senate end-of-year press event at the Statehouse. At that point, she had yet to discuss the matter with House Speaker Jill Krowinski, but indicated willingness to take it up.
Friday, Balint was ready to say yes.
“We anticipate taking up S. 79 during the veto session,” she said. “It was a bill that nearly made it over the finish line, but was held up by the minority on a procedural move. It's an important bill that we've worked on for many years now, as we continue our push to provide safe, clean and affordable housing for all Vermonters.”
Concerns about renters’ rights are on lawmakers’ and housing advocates' minds as housing advocates report heavy demand. As rents climb with demand, supporters of S. 79 say it’s crucial to bring more units back online and protect renters’ health and safety.
Balint said the bill’s provisions, including a rental registry that can be used in case of a need for emergency housing such as Tropical Storm Irene, are critical.
“It is long past time to put this law into place. Renters in Vermont deserve safe, clean, affordable housing,” Balint said.
Fellow Brattleboro lawmaker Rep. Emilie Kornheiser supports the bill as well. She said the inspection program will “make some inroads” in a rental market where demand far exceeds supply, and tenants are afraid of confronting landlords about health and safety issues out of fear they’ll lose their housing.
“It’s a real significant investment in growing housing stock - which is a really important solution to this problem,” she said.
GOP House members were opposed to the proposed statewide rental unit registry and state-run inspection system, which would create five new positions in state government. However, during debate on the bill, they supported grant funding to help landlords update unused housing units to meet current code, and a revolving loan fund to help families purchase housing.
Rep. Michael Nigro, D-Bennington 2-2, co-owns rental units with his wife and has been hearing from folks who are having trouble finding apartments.
"The last two rentals that opened up, we filled them just as fast as we have ever filled an apartment before," Nigro said. "We're definitely hearing about folks having trouble finding apartments. ... It doesn't surprise me if that is also leading to price increases, because that's going to go hand-in-hand."
While Nigro had some issues with the specifics of S. 79, he supports the overarching concept. ”Anytime we have apartments sitting vacant that are not up to code and not being used … we can’t afford that,” he said.
Elizabeth Bridgewater, executive director of the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust, said she was “really disappointed” the bill stalled just as it approached the finish line.
“I know folks I’ve spoken to are very committed to the bill and that program in particular,” Bridgewater said.