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Tenant trouble: A closer look at rental rules in Vermont and evictions

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Tenants rights versus landlords rights: questions about evicting bad tenants arose from our recent reporting on Decker Towers, a Burlington apartment building where some residents fear for their safety because of alleged drug dealing. But the property manager says it’s a big challenge to get rid of bad tenants.

So our Ike Bendavid went looking for answers on how the eviction process works.

“It’s pretty bad here,” said Richard Miller, a resident of Decker Towers.

Residents of Decker Towers in Burlington say some of their neighbors and the visitors they attract are making life miserable, pointing to drug sales, drug use and a slew of other disturbances.

The Burlington Housing Authority, which runs the subsidized housing project, says they understand the concerns.

“We are all tired and our residents are tired. And our residents are being very vocal with us and we are engaging with them as they are frustrated beyond belief,” said Steven Murray, the director of the Burlington Housing Authority.

Murray says evicting bad tenants isn’t an easy process.

“We need to show a very high level of proof that the person is actually engaged in the egregious behavior,” he said.

It doesn’t happen quickly.

“I can identify residents that are disrupting the community but if I have to wait seven to 12 months to evict them, it looks like I’m doing absolutely nothing,” Murray said.

“Tenants have rights; landlords have rights,” said Sam Abel-Palmer, the executive director of Legal Services Vermont, a statewide helpline for people seeking legal assistance. “One of our big efforts is to avoid homelessness.”

Abel-Palmer says for a tenant to be evicted, there is a legal process that needs to happen.

“In order to evict somebody, you can’t just tell somebody to leave and have them on the street,” he said.

According to Abel-Palmer, the legal process starts when the landlord gives the tenant a written notice that they are terminating the lease.

“How long they have after that depends on the reason,” he explained.

Reasons can be nonpayment, lease violation or a no-cause eviction where a landlord simply wants you to leave.

The time from when the tenant gets a written notice and vacates the apartment depends. For nonpayment, the minimum is two weeks until termination. A lease violation is normally 30 days but extreme violations can be two weeks. No-cause is usually two to three months, and in Burlington, that can be four months.

If the tenant refuses to leave, a landlord must then file a lawsuit to force them out. Abel-Palmer says the court process, depending on the circumstances, takes around 60 days after the notice is served.

“The police won’t come to remove somebody from a property unless there’s a court order,” Abel-Palmer said.

The Vermont Landlord Association contends that from the first notice to full eviction through a court process it often takes six to 12 months.

“They don’t want to have to go through that process. And so if a landlord is making the decision to start an eviction, they’ve tried everything else,” said Angela Zaikowski, the director of the Vermont Landlord Association.

Evictions are also costly, not only because of unpaid rent or damages that must be repaired, but in legal costs to go through the court process. Sometimes the good tenants end up paying for it.

“If you take a loss, you have to look at where can you recoup that loss or it’s just not good business sense. And so many times that gets absorbed across all of the tenants’ rents, because it has to be recaptured in some fashion,” Zaikowski said.

Back at Decker Towers, Murray says more action needs to be taken to protect good tenants.

“This is the Statehouse or the city coming up with options that will allow landlords to fast track eviction of people who are dealing drugs or their behavior is egregious,” he said.

There is currently debate statewide about just-cause evictions. Advocates say the whole notion of just-cause is basically to eliminate the category of no-cause evictions, saying that they are sometimes used when there is suspicion of foul play but the landlord can’t prove it.

The landlord association adds that if just-cause evictions go into effect, the neighbors who are making the complaints will have to be part of the process which they say at times could be dangerous for those who are speaking out.

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