In a March 8 letter to Gov. Phil Scott and legislative leaders, they call for more funds to boost the supply of affordable, family-sized rentals across the state. But development incentives alone aren't enough, they emphasize.
"Investments in housing to meet this crisis must be coupled with requirements to ensure that mass displacements like the one underway in Winooski do not happen," the letter states.
The letter is signed by Mayor Kristine Lott and representatives from the Winooski School District, the Winooski Housing Authority, the housing nonprofits Champlain Housing Trust and Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and AALV.
The displacement at 300 Main Street is not an isolated situation, either, they write.
"Time and again, we have seen landlords renovate units and raise rents, displacing economically disadvantaged families. This practice disproportionately affects members of the BIPOC community and oftentimes is rooted in racism," the letter states.
The governor wants to spend $105 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds on affordable, mixed-income housing projects in the year ahead. Lawmakers are debating how to divvy up an infusion of federal funds.
In an interview Thursday, Lott said some of the money ought to be earmarked specifically for multi-bedroom units. Lawmakers should also increase funding for programs that support refugees, who face additional barriers in navigating the rental housing market, she said.
"If the state wants to welcome refugees, the state has an obligation to ensure that there's safe housing available for these new families," she said.
The groups contend that any public housing funds allocated to private developers should come with "permanent safeguards" that prevent property owners from displacing residents after the project is built or tax incentives expire.
The state should further require that landlords who need to displace tenants to perform renovations provide adequate notice and relocation assistance, including "identification of alternative housing, resources for moving expenses, and temporary assistance with covering increased rents," they wrote.
While many of other apartment buildings owned by the Bove brothers were constructed with federal incentives, the Winooski complex was not. Nearly half of tenants at 300 Main have paid rent with the help of public subsidies through rental vouchers, however.
Lott acknowledged to Seven Days that she didn't know exactly what steps the state should take to better protect renters from the effects of unexpected displacement. The topic, she said, has seemed largely absent from policy discussions about the state's housing crisis that are taking place in her city and in Montpelier. The situation at 300 Main is bringing the gap into focus.
"We've been really focused on creation of new housing," she said. "We haven't dedicated time to the support side of things."
The property at 300 Main has been plagued by years of city housing code violations, including pest infestations and mold, Seven Days and VPR reported last fall. It was one of several Bove properties with a poor track record of code compliance, the news organizations found.
At the municipal level, Winooski is studying changes to zoning regulations and considering other incentives to enable more housing construction. Across the river, Burlington voters recently passed a city charter change that limits when landlords can evict tenants.
Winooski officials have not pursued a similar "just-cause eviction" provision, Lott said, in part because of fears that it could backfire by making landlords less willing to rent to the city's low-income and refugee tenants.
"We can't solve this problem locally," Lott said. "It's so much bigger than that."
Seven Days is examining Vermont's housing crisis — and what can be done about it — in our Locked Out series this year. Send tips to [email protected]. These stories are supported by a grant from the nonprofit Journalism Funding Partners, which leverages philanthropy and fundraising to boost local reporting.