To the Editor:
I am very grateful for the work that the Town of St. Johnsbury is doing to improve the quality of rental housing in Town. I understand that some landlords object to paying a fee to fund code enforcement. I wonder if a better solution would be to collect fines from the landlords who operate unsafe housing. In that way, the few landlords who choose not to keep up their properties would pay at least some of the costs of that choice.
It seems to me that the great majority of landlords in St. Johnsbury maintain their properties in compliance with our housing ordinance. Only a minority of landlords rent out substandard housing.
The Town already has a Civil Ordinance, Section 6-9, which allows landlords to be fined up to $100 per day for violating the housing ordinance. However, it is my understanding that such fines are rarely imposed. It does not seem fair – or good policy – for landlords who routinely violate the housing code to do so without penalty, while the costs of such violations are imposed on others.
Take, for example, a bedbug infested building in town. The brunt of the suffering from those bedbugs is borne by the tenants and their children. Families suffer bites, secondary infections, sleeplessness, the costs of having to throw away much of their stuff, and often the costs of moving to get away from the bugs.
Moreover, bedbugs can easily and unwittingly be carried from one building to another. So the law abiding landlords bear the costs of having to pay for exterminations that could have been avoided had the other landlord exterminated promptly and properly.
In at least one case, a landlord testified about bedbugs in his rental property when he appealed for a lower tax appraisal– and his appraisal was, in fact, lowered. This is an even more direct cost to the Town and taxpayers. It seems wrong that a landlord could testify about a long term bedbug infestation in his rental property and walk out with a lower tax appraisal rather than a big fine.
The town could limit fines to the most serious problems — like lack of heat or water – and situations where the landlord refused to make repairs after being ordered to by the Town Health Officer. Even that could raise a good chunk of the money needed for a part time code enforcement officer – and probably get some buildings fixed up in the bargain.
I talked about this with one landlord who told me that he has never paid a fine in forty years of landlording and that if the Town started imposing fines, it would raise his costs of doing business. I am not sure this is a bad thing. If we make it less profitable for landlords to operate bedbug infested or otherwise substandard housing, perhaps unscrupulous landlords will choose to bring their buildings up to code or sell them to someone who will.
Staff Attorney, Vermont Legal Aid
St. Johnsbury, Vermont