Seven Days

When the Bedbugs Bite, Vermont Officials Are Ill-Equipped to Respond

As Chester's health officer, Leslie Thorsen is responsible for enforcing Vermont's rental housing code, meant to protect tenants from inadequate plumbing and heating, contaminated water, rodent infestations, and other health-threatening conditions.

Thorsen, an operating room nurse, does all this in her spare time, for just $1,000 a year. And when she responds to a tenant's complaint, there is little she can do if a landlord refuses to correct a problem.

"The [most] you can do is write a health order," Thorsen said, referring to a legal document that negligent landlords have been known to ignore.

Enforcement of Vermont's rental housing codes depends almost entirely on people such as Thorsen — low-paid or volunteer town health officers with minimal training and a limited ability to remedy substandard housing.

In a report set to be released this week, Vermont Legal Aid concludes that this system fails to protect tenants, essentially trapping them in unsafe homes. The report tells the stories of Vermont renters living with broken furnaces, sparking electrical outlets, cough-inducing mold and leaking toilets.

"I think it's fair to say that the governmental response has been inadequate," said Jack McCullough, a longtime attorney with the nonprofit law office.

Legal Aid's report calls for creating a landlord registry to allow more oversight of rental units, professionalizing the health officer force and increasing penalties for violating the rental housing health code.

Enforcing minimum housing standards is particularly important because of Vermont's aging housing stock — 43 percent of rentals were built before 1950, according to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency — and a dearth of affordable housing statewide, said Maryellen Griffin, a lawyer with Legal Aid.

Under the state's rental housing health code, landlords are legally required to provide necessities such as a sink, a flush toilet, a working sewage system, a source of heat, and a structure that is weather-tight and rodent-free. (Fire safety regulations are separately enforced by the state Department of Public Safety.)

Vermont law "would seem to put tenants in a good position to have reliable and well-maintained housing," McCullough said. "The problem is that actually getting those rights enforced has been tremendously difficult." [...]

Some health officers limit what they'll endure in service to their towns. Edgerly said he's declined to inspect a tenant's complaint about bedbugs: "I'm not going into a bedbug situation — no way."

That sort of attitude frustrates tenants.

"Our clients will make complaints to town health officers and it doesn't really go anywhere," Legal Aid lawyer Sandy Partiz said.

"We know that people are radically underreporting problems because they don't believe in the system," Griffin said. [...]

Legal Aid, which plans to advocate for some of these changes during the legislative session, says steps such as investing in a better-paid, more professional force of town health officers will save the state money in the long run. "Something that might have cost a landlord a few hundred dollars to fix, like a mold problem, can end up costing thousands of dollars in health care expenses to treat a tenant's resulting respiratory illness," the report says. [...]