BURLINGTON -- If you're a tenant in trouble, where do you turn? Since 1984, renters in Vermont with questions about security deposit disputes, code enforcement issues or eviction notices have been able to turn to Vermont Tenants, Inc., for advice. But that door is currently closed. Since mid-November, visitors to the agency's office on North Winooski Avenue have been greeted by an unwelcoming paper sign. "Attention tenants," it reads, "Due to major cuts in federal funding for our program, Vermont Tenants, Inc. will no longer be able to assist tenants in person or by phone until and unless funding is restored."
VTI is the only agency of its kind in the state. In the last fiscal year, the program, sponsored by the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, distributed 30,000 copies of its essential "Renting in Vermont Handbook" and counseled members of nearly 1200 Vermont households.
Ted Wimpey, CVOEO's director of Statewide Housing Resources, says VTI is an extremely popular program. He notes that when someone calls its renters' hotline, the phone doesn't even ring; the calls go directly to voicemail. "Otherwise," he says, "you'd never get anything done. Some days as many as 30 calls come in.
Wimpey explains that federal funding for VTI dried up last fall, when lawmakers in Washington failed to appropriate enough money for the Community Development Block Grant Program. Wimpey was forced to lay off one of the two VTI program advocates in September; he let the other go in November.
The U.S. Senate did restore funding for the CDBG program to '05 levels in the final days of December. As a result, Wimpey says, VTI should be able to hire and train a new advocate in about two months. But he adds that VTI is still in jeopardy. The CDBG funding only runs through fiscal year '06, which ends in September, Wimpey notes. When Congress revisits the budget in nine months, he says, "We could be in the same precarious position."
This instability at VTI is bad news, and not just for tenants. Burlington landlord Stu McGowan calls last fall's defunding of VTI "a tragedy." McGowan owns approximately 40 apartments, many of them classified as low-income housing and located in the city's Old North End. He says he often relies on the VTI handbook, and has referred tenants to the agency in the past. "They're very helpful," he says. "They're a resource for me as well."
Marjorie Stinchcombe, staff attorney for Vermont Legal Aid, says VTI is important to her organization, too. The agency is the only source for basic tenants' rights information, and is able to help tenants judge whether they should pursue legal action. "They really play an important role in educating people," Stinchcombe says.
CVOEO Executive Director Tim Searles blames the Bush administration for VTI's recent troubles. He claims the administration is trying to defund secular social services. "They're eliminating the anti-poverty safety net that's been in place for 40 years," he charges. "This has never happened before."
Searles points out that the CDBG funding doesn't only affect VTI -- last fall's funding cuts endangered CVOEO's entire Community Action network. As recently as the final week of December, advocates were preparing to close two of the state's Community Action centers by the end of January. That would have eliminated emergency food and heating services in Addison, Franklin and Grand Isle counties during the harshest months of the year.
Searles claims that Republican leaders want to shift the burden of providing services to faith-based organizations. Bush "thinks that the only people who should be doing human services are Christian fundamentalists," he says.
Searles notes that Vermont's faith-based organizations have no desire to see CVOEO defunded. "When you talk to people who are affiliated with churches, and people of faith," he observes, "they have no interest in taking on this work. They like partnering with us."
Lucy Samara says Searles is right about that. Samara is Outreach Minister for Burlington's First Congregational Church and president of the Joint Urban Ministry Program Board of Directors. JUMP, a project supported by a dozen local congregations, shares a similar mission with CVOEO. The faith-based organization offers pastoral care, information and service referrals to struggling Vermonters.
Samara says JUMP has no desire to compete with CVOEO for federal dollars. She points out that the two organizations work "hand in hand" on a daily basis. "These programs are critical to people living in poverty," she says. "I think there's a huge loss to us in programs like VTI being cut."
"The bottom line," Samara says, "is what a shame."