Burlington Free Press | January 23, 2017

Date: 
January 23, 2017

Burlington debates a kinder way to tackle evictions

One city councilor thinks Burlington can do more to support public housing tenants on the brink of eviction, but those operating the buildings say they already follow procedures to help troubled residents remain housed.

The North District's Dave Hartnett is pushing for the creation of a task force to study the issue. Specifically, Hartnett wants to examine what happens when Burlington Housing Authority, Cathedral Square and Champlain Housing Trust decide to terminate a lease.

"Right now, I think we've identified that we do have somewhat of a little crisis in Burlington with people living in public housing that deal with some mental health crises," he said in early January.

The decision to evict someone from subsidized housing is a serious one, said Jessica Radbord, a Legal Aid attorney who often represents tenants in evictions cases. She said those who lose housing often end up in the city's overburdened shelters, seeking hotel vouchers from the state or simply sleeping outdoors.

Hartnett hopes to avoid another case like that of Ralph "Phil" Grenon, whom city police ftally shot during a standoff in March 2016. Police said the 76-year-old was threatening self-harm and was facing eviction from his South Square apartment due to his long history of making threats to other residents and the staff of Burlington Housing Authority, which operates that building. Grenon was killed after he threatened police with a knife when they entered his apartment for a welfare check.

Hartnett and Councilors Sara Giannoni and Selene Colburn, who sit on the public safety committee, met with representatives of public housing organizations in early January to discuss Hartnett's initiative. The housing authority representatives — including Sarah Russell, who runs the housing retention team at Burlington Housing Authority — detailed the process they go through for terminating leases.

The goal of the housing retention team, Russell said, is to keep residents in their homes. They are well aware that losing subsidized housing can lead to homelessness and the housing retention team offers many chances for troubled tenants to come into compliance with their leases, Russell said.

There's a difference between an eviction and a termination, she said. An eviction is a court proceeding. If a judge rules in favor of the Burlington Housing Authority, the tenant has a set amount of time to vacate the apartment before law enforcement escorts the resident off the property. However, in advance of involving the courts, housing agencies send a termination letter that notifies the resident that their lease will be broken.

Most terminations never make it to court, Russell said. Rather, they get resolved in informal hearings, where the tenant and their support team create a plan to avoid the problems that got the tenant into termination proceedings in the first place.

Grenon's eviction case had yet to make it to court at the time of his fatal encounter with police. The Burlington Free Press did not find an eviction case for Grenon, and Lt. Dan Gammelin of the Chittenden County Sheriff's Office said the case had never reached his office. Russell declined to talk about Grenon's case, citing client confidentiality.

Generally, Russell said Burlington Housing Authority is still willing to work things out with the tenants, even after a case moves to court.

Earlier this month, lawyer William Dysart of Vermont Legal Aid's Senior Citizens Project staved off the eviction of his client  Andrew Cushing from South Square, the same Burlington Housing Authority-operated building where Grenon died last March. Cushing, a disabled elderly resident, lives on $800 per month and was facing eviction proceedings for nonpayment of rent.

Cushing's case demonstrates how long the eviction process can take. Burlington Housing Authority officials first sent a letter informing Cushing of the intention to terminate his lease seven months prior to his court trial Jan. 13.

Dysart said his client was able to gather the money to pay back rent, plus fees, through help from some family and some community groups, including the Committee on Temporary Shelter.

Dysart said the agencies are usually willing to work out a payment plan, at least the first time a tenant falls behind on rent.

Despite some hiccups with Cushing's case — like asking him to pay fees that totaled more than his $232.00 monthly rent — Dysart said he finds the agencies to be even-handed. Still, he said facing an eviction proceeding in court can be be anxiety-inducing for his elderly clients, which can exacerbate health issues.

Even after hearing from the agencies about their procedures, Hartnett has pressed forward with efforts to form a task force, which he expects to come before the full City Council on Monday. The task force will include representatives from the housing agencies, Legal Aid attorneys, mental health professionals and public housing tenants.

Hartnett said he was particularly focused on the way the agency had notified Grenon his lease was terminated. In an early meeting after Grenon's death, he said, it came out that the agency had left a letter on Grenon's door because he wasn't home.

​"There has to be a better delivery of that notice," Hartnett said.

Russell said the Burlington Housing Authority complies with Vermont state law in delivering the termination letters. The notices are either mailed via first class or certified mail or occasionally hand-delivered.

At the time of Hartnett's meeting with the housing agencies, Russell said the Burlington Housing Authority had nine open eviction cases. But Russell said the agency did not keep precise data on how many terminations ended in evictions, and how many evictions are averted.

Leaders from Committee for Temporary Shelter has been pushing for better oversight.

"We want organizations that receive public funding to track evictions to create a baseline for analyzing eviction data," said Becky Holt, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit.

Analyzing the data could create insights into underlying causes, Holt said.

The sheriff's office is responsible for serving notices of evictions to tenants, and enforcing the orders to vacate once the court has ruled. Lt. Gammelin, whose office serves eviction notices and then sees that a legal decision is enforced, estimated that less than half of the cases that went to court in the housing authorities ended in an actual eviction. By comparison, he said, almost all of the cases brought by private landlords end in actual evictions. He estimated the annual number of evictions from private housing to be in the hundreds versus about a dozen from public housing.

The housing authorities said the task force would offer them an opportunity to share their experience in keeping people housed and discuss the greater mental health issues facing the agencies and the city.

With more resources, Russell said, her housing retention team could become a resource for the greater Burlington community to turn to, including private landlords.

For now, Hartnett said, he wants to stay focused on the public housing agencies.

"It's public housing," he said. "We have a responsibility to the people who live there."