How are Vermonters supposed to stay home during the coronavirus crisis if they’re getting kicked out of their homes?
That’s one of the many dilemmas lawmakers are weighing as they seek to help residents weather the economic storm caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Legislators are considering a statewide moratorium on evictions until two months after Gov. Phil Scott lifts the state of emergency that he declared on March 13.
The idea got close scrutiny in housing committees of both the House and Senate this week and is expected to move forward next week.
People should "stay put" during the public health crisis, Jean Murray, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, told the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee. “Just put a pause on the whole thing,” Murray said.
Courts have taken steps to slow evictions. The Vermont Supreme Court has postponed all nonemergency hearings until April 15, Chief Superior Judge Brian Grearson told the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee.
While not a moratorium, the order effectively stops most new evictions from moving forward, the judge said. But the order would not prevent a landlord from getting an emergency eviction order, nor would it block an eviction process that began before the state of emergency.
That troubles advocates, who say the state needs to step in and order the courts to cease all evictions. In a typical year, there are about 1,800 evictions in Vermont, or about 150 a month, Murray said.
People can't find a new apartment now, especially given that many agents aren’t even showing units, she said. And good luck fighting an eviction in court, considering the restrictions on nonemergency hearings, she said.
“Having to adjudicate something in a court right now is incredibly difficult for my client group, which is low-income people," Murray said.
Lawmakers agreed with the goal of keeping people housed but also sought to balance the rights of landlords.
“We want to protect people who are financially imperiled because of COVID-19,” Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) said. “On the other hand, we recognize that landlords are people, too, and particularly our small landlords are faced with some of the same financial issues.”
Brock argued against the state overstepping. He said the courts were handling the issue appropriately, and individual judges were best positioned to address such issues.
But even landlord groups agree that statewide action is needed.
“A sort of piecemeal approach, county by county and judge by judge, doesn’t necessarily help us in this situation,” Angela Zaikowski, director of the Vermont Apartment Owners Association, told senators.
Landlords recognize that it's no time to be moving forward with evictions, Zaikowski said. “With the governor’s stay home, stay safe order, we can’t have people being moved out of their housing right now,” she said.
But she stressed that landlords have significant expenses and need to know that they will be made whole for rent.
“The primary concern for landlords right now is their rent payments and whether they are going to receive those rent payments or not,” Zaikowski said.
She called the proposed moratorium language “actually quite fair” and noted that it would not waive the obligation for the rent to be paid at some point. Landlords would still be able to initiate evictions by sending termination notices to tenants and start court filings, but "once it hits the courthouse, it stops.”
Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) acknowledged that the legislative process is often “clunky” compared to how swiftly the governor can act, but it’s not clear what Gov. Phil Scott intends to.
“The governor is obviously very concerned about individuals having a place to shelter during this pandemic,” Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, told senators.
Sirotkin said he took this and other remarks by Pieciak as “code" for saying that the administration was considering a moratorium at some point.
“You can break my codes now, I guess,” Pieciak replied.