This story was updated at 3 p.m. on March 18, 2022.
Following weeks of public outcry, Mark and Rick Bove say they no longer plan to kick out the 24 low-income, mostly refugee families who live at a housing complex the brothers own in Winooski.
The Boves told tenants in February that they would all need to leave by July 1 ahead of "major renovations" at the 300 Main Street property. The brothers then intended to raise rents at the updated complex to market rate.
But affordable housing organizations, nonprofits that support refugees and immigrants, and Winooski city officials all decried the mass eviction at a time when rents are soaring and housing is hard to come by. They later pressed the issue in a letter to state lawmakers, calling for reforms that would better protect tenants. A community fundraiser started over the weekend to support the families had raised more than $16,000 as of Friday afternoon.
The Boves, of the namesake pasta sauce brand, changed their minds.
"After further consideration of how the decision negatively affected the current residents, the project has been reimagined," the brothers said Thursday night in a statement emailed to members of the media.
The renovation will go on as planned this summer, according to the statement, but has been "reengineered." Instead of evicting everyone, the landlords will first renovate two vacant apartments. Once they are done, they'll relocate two families from other apartments into those units. They'll proceed that way until all are updated, the statement says. Plans include new doors, windows, flooring and heating .
"This plan reduces the impact on current tenants, who will no longer have to find other housing options unless they choose to relocate," it reads.
After the upgrades, the Boves say, they won't raise the rents to market rate. Instead, they will cap them at fair market rates as determined by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, which will allow the tenants to continue to use the Section 8 vouchers given to low-income renters. Roughly half of the tenants at 300 Main rent through Section 8.
“We are trying to do better,” Rick Bove said in the statement. “We are committed to improving our real estate locations and we believe this new approach will work for everybody.”
Winooski Mayor Kristine Lott applauded the solution, which she said will result “in a better outcome for all parties.” She also credited those who have spoken out over the last six weeks.
“I also believe that the community voice of concern about this issue had an impact, and appreciate Winooski residents' commitment to safe and affordable housing,” Lott said.
During talks with the Boves this week, the Winooski Housing Authority, AALV and others agreed to help improve cooperation between the landlord and tenants, said WHA executive director Katherine Decarreau. She said public pushback seemed to help Rick Bove see the situation differently.
“I think, after a while, Mr. Bove began to understand the real impact he was having,” she said. “I don't know that he understood.”
The property at 300 Main has been plagued by years of city housing code violations, including roach infestations and mold, Seven Days and Vermont Public Radio reported last fall. It was one of several Bove properties with a poor track record of code compliance, the news organizations found.
“We committed to renovate these buildings as soon as possible, following the criticism of those locations last fall. Our primary focus was to immediately get these buildings not just up to code, but to be apartments Vermonters would be proud of,” Rick Bove said in the statement. “Our intention was never for the renovation project to be a hardship on the current residents, so we have course corrected in hopes that it will mitigate the impact on our current residents and will still provide them with upgraded living spaces upon completion.”
Lott and other city leaders said Friday that the averted displacement at 300 Main is ultimately a “small win” in the context of a bigger housing crisis that is especially hard on low-income renters and those who face additional hurdles navigating the market, such as refugees. Alleviating the crisis will require, in part, “landlords to be more willing to rent existing housing to low income and refugee families,” Lott said, as well as resources to support tenants.
Liam Elder-Connors of VPR contributed to this story.