Hours before the Vermont Legislature adjourned for the 2021 session, House Republicans took a stand against an expansive housing reform proposal that had been expected to make it to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk.
Though the measure already passed both chambers, members of the Republican minority refused to suspend the rules and send it back to the Senate — a final parliamentary step before it could reach Scott’s desk.
The move killed the bill, at least for now, and provided a rare burst of drama in an otherwise sedate adjournment. It also served as a reminder that House Republicans can still influence the legislative endgame, even though they’re outnumbered in the chamber by nearly 2-1.
“It’s one of the few tools that the minority party has to slow things down,” said Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, who chairs the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs.
The bill, S.79, would have allowed courts to oust tenants during the current eviction moratorium under certain circumstances — including if a tenant was not taking advantage of the state’s emergency rental assistance program.
It also would have created a statewide system to enforce safety standards in rental properties throughout Vermont and set up a registry for long- and short-term rentals in Vermont.
Housing advocates have for years sought legislation to set up a rental registry, which they have argued is integral to solving Vermont’s housing crisis.
Republicans argued on the House floor that the proposed regulations would discourage individuals and businesses from investing and building additional long-term rental housing.
“That was my concern — that our housing availability is so scarce that this would actually exacerbate the problem,” Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, said. Scheuermann herself owns a property development and management company.
She said that landlords had originally pushed for the ability to evict a tenant who was choosing not to participate in the $100 rental assistance program. Instead, Democrats decided to only grant that authority to landlords who lived on the same property as the tenant, according to Scheuermann.
“The eviction moratorium tweaks were so few that it would have helped very few Vermont owners and landlords,” she said.
Stevens, whose committee helped shape the bill, was steamed at his Republican colleagues for preventing it from becoming law.
“It was incredibly callous of the opposition to not suspend the rules,” he said.
It’s possible the bill could soon be resurrected. Stevens and Senate Majority Leader Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, said Monday that if the Legislature returned for a veto session next month, the measure could still make it to Scott’s desk this year.
“It has to wait and cool its heels, and then it comes to us and hopefully we’ll be able to address it in the veto session,” said Clarkson, a lead sponsor on the bill. “It’s an important bill, and we’re so close.
It’s not a given, however, that the Legislature will return at all. Though the House and Senate have scheduled a veto session for June 23-24, Scott has vetoed just one bill this year — a measure shielding the records of young adults accused of some crimes — and legislative leaders could choose to wait until next January to address both bills.
According to Stevens, provisions in S.79 related to the state’s eviction moratorium cannot wait. The bill would have loosened the COVID-19 eviction freeze to give landlords and property owners more authority to work with recalcitrant tenants and have cases heard in court.
“It’s not my habit to make things easier for people to evict tenants, but what we’ve seen in the pandemic is that there are people who just won’t play and won’t utilize the tools that we have available for them or have such a negative relationship with their landlords — or tenants — that we needed to do something,” Stevens said.
The legislation would also establish a grant program for landlords to receive up to $30,000 to fix up existing housing stock and no-interest $50,000 loans for first-time homeowners — specifically aimed at people of color and other would-be buyers from marginalized communities.