The Vermont House on Friday gave preliminary approval to a charter change in Burlington that would ban no-cause evictions.
The chamber advanced the bill with a 98-49 vote. The legislation will have one final vote in the House next week before being sent to the Senate for consideration. Nine of 10 Burlington representatives voted in favor of the bill. House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) did not vote, as is custom.
"Just cause policies are intended to promote residential stability," Rep. Barbara Rachelson (D-Burlington) said. "Renters who are meeting all the requirements of their lease need assurance they can remain in their home."
Vermont law allows renters to be evicted from their units for no reason at all, or simply because their lease is ending. The bill, H.708, would ban these no-cause evictions in Burlington by requiring landlords to have a valid reason for displacing their tenants. The bill provides some examples — nonpayment of rent, breaking a lease — but the details would be fleshed out in a new city ordinance.
The version advanced by lawmakers differs slightly from the language approved by a large margin of Queen City voters last March. After hearing concerns from landlords, the House Government Operations Committee — which reviews all municipal charter changes — agreed to spell out other "just causes" for eviction, including if the tenant damages the property or engages in illegal behavior.
Last week, the committee considered exempting properties owned by landlords with four or fewer rental units, but tossed the language after city officials testified that such a clause would create a massive loophole. Lawmakers instead settled on a provision that requires the city ordinance to "mitigate impacts on small landlords" once passed.
The bill also exempts owner-occupied duplexes and triplexes and properties "in need of substantial renovations that preclude occupancy."
Despite its wide approval at the polls, the just cause eviction issue proved controversial in the lead-up to last year's vote. Landlord advocates vociferously opposed the proposal, arguing that it would impinge on their property rights and hamper their ability to increase rents. Proponents said a just-cause eviction law would level the playing field between landlords and tenants in Burlington, where nearly two-thirds of residents rent.
That same division was on display during Friday's debate in the House. Reps. Rachelson and Joseph "Chip" Troiano (D-Stannard) said the bill would offer protections to vulnerable Burlingtonians and prevent homelessness. And Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky (P/D-Essex), who serves on the House Government Operations Committee, recalled hearing testimony from a renter who was evicted without cause and became unhoused.
"Every tool we can use to provide safe and stable housing for Vermonters is of the utmost importance," Vyhovsky said. "We're in a statewide crisis, and preventing individual crises for tenants evicted for no cause is direly important."
But Rep. Terri Lynn Williams (R-Granby) said she thought banning no-cause evictions would worsen homelessness by discouraging property owners from creating long-term rentals. Rep. Pat Brennan (R-Colchester), a former Burlington landlord, said it's hard enough to evict a tenant under the current law and that the legislation goes "a little too far."
"Protections are provided now," he said. "Knowing what I do know about the way Burlington does work now with landlords, this is a step in the wrong direction."
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe), who owns rental properties outside of Burlington, moved to send the bill to the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs for further consideration, but the motion failed on a voice vote.
Tom Proctor, campaign director for Rights & Democracy's Just Cause Coalition, cheered Friday's vote as a show of "collective people power."
"I am immensely proud of everyone who has worked so hard to get us this far," Proctor said in a statement, noting that tenants, activists and lawmakers support the just cause effort. "The fight is far from over as this heads to the Senate, but I am confident that the Vermont Legislature will honor the will of the people and democracy will be realized."
Two other charter changes approved by Burlington voters last year are still pending — one that would resurrect ranked-choice voting and another that would allow the city to tax properties heated by fossil fuels. A third, which expanded the number of seats on the Burlington Airport Commission, was signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott on Monday.
Correction, February 22, 2022: A previous version of this story inaccurately described a failed proposal that would have exempted certain properties from the just cause eviction ordinance.