Because of the housing safety veto, people are at risk

This commentary was published in VT Digger on 10/24/21.

The Housing Safety Bill (S.79) would have made much-needed changes in how health and safety is enforced in rental housing by shifting health inspections from mostly volunteer, town-based town health officers to the State Division of Fire Safety. Since the governor has vetoed S.79, we have heard about rats 8 inches long scrambling across the kitchen table and children with bedbug bites covering their bodies trying to stay awake in class after a fitful night’s sleep. We have also heard “Pam’s” story. Pam was watching TV in the mobile home she rents when rain fell into her living room. Her landlord repaired it by taping a blue tarp to the ceiling and telling her to move to another room. Pam wasn’t surprised because she previously endured hot summer days without water and two weeks in the winter without heat.

The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity’s Housing Advocacy Program, which includes Fair Housing, Vermont Tenants and the Mobile Home Project, listens to these stories and witnesses the unhealthy and unsafe conditions that Vermonters, like Pam, live in every day. Think about it: A bill that improves health and safety measures for vulnerable Vermonters — including low-income families, New Americans, older Vermonters and people with disabilities — was vetoed last legislative session, putting people at risk. When we fail in housing, young children are exposed to lead and are more likely to experience persistent asthma symptoms and older Vermonters fall; falling is a leading contributor to disability and death among older Vermonters. When we fail in housing, we fail in health care and we fail in human dignity.

What is going on here? This cannot be about ensuring that we have enough housing stock, as the governor asserts in his veto, because a functioning government can surely do two things at once; it can ensure and promote sufficient housing that also has minimal standards for health and safety. Anything less is like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Sadly, I think the veto demonstrates a dim view of people living on the margins. It is a safe calculation for people with power and money to argue for fewer “restrictions” at the expense of health and safety of the most vulnerable. After all, people living on the margins have less political influence and less purchasing power. We don’t like to admit that our systems and our very thinking tend toward and favor those with economic and political advantage.

By the way, Pam called the volunteer town health officer, who told her that if he saw that ceiling again, he would have to deem the mobile home uninhabitable and Pam would have to leave in 48 hours, which would leave her homeless. Pam made the choice to stay. This is what real decisions look like. This is what a veto looks like. The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity fully supports S.79 as an important health and safety measure to protect the most vulnerable Vermonters. We hope you will as well.