Lawmakers seek to curb homelessness during COVID-19 pandemic
By LEE J. KAHRS
BRANDON — A measure being considered by the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs would put a stay on evictions, foreclosures and repossessions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The moratorium would be in addition to the halt on most evictions handed down last month by the Vermont judicial system, which effectively halted 95 percent of eviction proceedings due to the pandemic.
“We don’t want people ending up on the streets, and we don’t want to tax the system any more than it already is,” said Sen. Cheryl Hooker, the Rutland County legislator who sits on the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee.
She said evictions based on criminal and dangerous behavior or conditions would proceed.
With thousands of Vermonters out of work now that Gov. Phil Scott has ordered all nonessential businesses to close, the committee is looking to protect tenants from eviction during a critical and unprecedented economic downturn.
But at least one local landlord said he believes there is little other protection for property owners with tenants who may struggle to pay rent if evictions are off the table, even temporarily.
Gabe McGuigan, 39, owns three single-family homes in Brandon and one multi-family rental property in Vergennes. He said he has been fortunate to have responsible tenants who care about their homes.
“These are nice properties,” he said. “It’s a home, people commit to it. They live there for years, and they make it a home.”
But he said if his tenants stopped paying rent, he sees more protection for them and not much for landlords.
“I still have payments and expenses that aren’t being largely forgiven,” McGuigan said. “Someone was saying we still have equity in the property, but if I’m not getting rents, I can’t pay my mortgages like everybody else. In most cases, it’s dollar for dollar.”
Hooker was asked if there are other aspects to the measure her committee is considering that would help landlords.
“We’ve been told to tell constituents to talk to their lenders about their situation,” she said. “This is not to say that evictions won’t go forward after this crisis, and we don’t know how much is in the (federal) C.A.R.E.S. Act for landlords or in any future stimulus packages.”
Rep. Stephanie Jerome (D-Brandon, Pittsford, Sudbury) is on the House Economic Development Committee. She said the law under consideration by the Vermont Senate is a stopgap measure.
“They’re trying to keep a balance between giving people housing and also knowing we need to support the property owners,” she said. “Now we’re saying this pandemic is going to go on longer and there are all these layers. They’re making a placeholder so people can keep living where they live now during the stay-at-home order. Landlords can proceed with evictions and pursue them in the courts when this is over.”
McGuigan said that the federal stimulus money and unemployment benefits coming to many Americans will help, and he does not believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will be a long-term situation, so he is hopeful.
“I’m all for protecting the tenants,” McGuigan said. “The piece that’s missing on the surface is protecting the small-time guy like myself. There aren’t big coffers of capital stocked away for this.”
McGuigan said a normal eviction effectively takes 90 days. If the moratorium legislation passes, it could add another three to six months to that timeline.
“That’s a significant amount of time to lose rent,” McGuigan said, “and you don’t get it back. Mortgages, the payments can get rolled to the end of the mortgage. Rent payments don’t work that way. Rents that are missed are not made up in the end. As much as they say it is and as much as it should be, it just isn’t.”
Hooker said that the point of the measure is to temporarily halt a process that would only exacerbate the current public health crisis.
“If you have homeless people on the streets and at the hospital, it’s a real ripple effect, so we want to try and mitigate that as far as the effects on public health,” she said.
McGuigan said that for landlords like himself who own a few properties, the issue is complex because his relationship with his tenants is not just business.
“We get close to these people,” he said. “We have barbeques, their kids know you, their pets know you, you go to their homes … you don’t want to end that connection.”
So, far, McGuigan said his tenants are still in good standing on rent and he hopes that will continue going forward.
“Hopefully, they will prioritize their housing,” he said. “It’s up to them to spend they’re money on rent. That would be the mature thing to do, and I believe I have those people in place.”