by Ciara McEneany, Community News Service
Landlords would’ve had to register rental units in a statewide list under the original version of a bill moving through the Senate, but lawmakers backed away from the plan and now the bill would only commission a study of the idea.
The original 20-page bill — H.276 — was reduced to just about one page of legislation spelling out the scope and funding of the study before it was passed by the House last month.
Why? Sponsor Rep. Thomas Stevens, D-Waterbury, said a cost estimate from the administration was “extraordinarily high” — and he’s convinced Gov. Phil Scott will veto it anyway.
The bill would create a partnership between the state Agency of Digital Services, the Department of Housing and Community Development and the Rental Housing Advisory Board to figure out how much it would cost to design and implement the registry, which would provide a full accounting of every rental unit in Vermont — something long-sought by renters’ rights groups.
When it was introduced in the House Committee on General and Housing, the bill aimed to create the registry immediately. Under the original plan, the Housing and Community Development department would have been empowered to require landlords to pay $35 to register their rental units annually.
But Stevens, the committee chair, said the Agency of Digital Services told legislators the plan would cost between $2 million and $10 million to put in place — and then about $5 million a year to maintain. So the committee decided to “delay” the registry itself and instead come up with a counter-estimate, Stevens said.
“In January there should be a report that would provide us with a cost, and we can question it,” he said.
According to a press release from the Burlington mayor’s office late last month, Vermont’s rental vacancy rate was 49th in the country, at 2.4%, last summer, and the state was ranked with having the second-highest homelessness rate in the country.
Housing advocates have been asking for a rental registry for over 30 years, Stevens said, but bills like H.276 in previous sessions have been vetoed by Scott, citing their mandated nature.
“The administration backed off on any kind of support that they may have had for a registry,” Stevens said. “I think it could have been based on fees because this administration doesn’t believe in creating or enhancing the fees that already exist. And there’s a whole political and financial thing that goes along with that.”
Groups that work with rental-housing owners, like the Vermont Association of Realtors, have been split on the idea of implementing a rental registry statewide.
“I think if there are two fundamental principles of the realtor organization, it would be to protect property owner rights and to encourage home ownership,” said Peter Tucker, advocacy and public policy director for the association. “So, for the group that didn’t think it was a good idea, they’re saying this is a regulation on property owner rights as it could potentially lead to more regulation.”
Other groups, including the Vermont Short-Term Rental Alliance, believe a registry could be beneficial to the rental industry.
“The benefits could be aggregated data collection and being able to build a comprehensive dataset around the short-term rental industry that provides clear and accurate information for communities who are looking to drop further regulations on the industry,” said Julie Marks, director and founder of the rental alliance.
Stevens believes a rental registry is essential to assist renters and landlords on a statewide level.
“There’s a lot of different databases online, but none of them do what we need to do, which is to tell us where the rental units are,” Stevens said. “Having a registry of this depth should have contact information and would allow us to contact the landlords when we’re changing the laws that affect them. And we think that’s incredibly important because no matter how many associations or organizations there may be, nobody can reach everybody.”
The draft legislation puts aside $25,000 for the study work. As the bill makes its way through the Senate, Stevens hopes it will be passed but believes it will be vetoed by the governor.
“The governor will likely veto it and will just put it on the table with other bills that have been vetoed that will have to be dealt with later in the year,” said Stevens.
A spokesperson for Scott’s office was unavailable for comment Monday afternoon.