Recently the Vermont legislature voted to raise the tax on heating oil a modest amount to help fund the state’s weatherization program. While the tax comes from good intentions, the program in practice will be taking money from low-income renters and giving that money to low-income homeowners and wealthier, often absentee, landlords.
The weatherization program, along with the federally funded Burlington Lead Program, have similar successes and challenges. Any Vermonter making less than 80% Area Median Income (AMI) can have the state help pay to insulate their house and lower heating bills. That’s good for low-income homeowners, since most low-income Vermonters cannot afford such improvements to their housing.
However, the program also applies to renters making less than 80% AMI, and it is not clear if these improvement help low-income tenants in perpetuity. Like the state’s ‘business incentive program’, while there are quality control oversights, there are no clear benchmarks that landlords must follow, no maximum rent restrictions after they have completed the work, and it’s not clear if there is any organization keeping track of what happens to low-income renters after improvements have been made to make sure landlords don’t see them as a free investment.
Landlords get free repairs and investment in their private business from the government, upwards of $8,000 per unit, with few strings attached. On top of this, the program only requires for multi-unit buildings that 25% of tenants are low income or 50% of the units are rented at 80% AMI. Rent stabilization is required if a landlord has a lien on it, but the stabilization only lasts one year. Rent stabilization is also required if the repairs cost more than the total savings, but there is no publicly available data to know if these actually happen, how often, and how long.
While weatherization and other programs help low-income homeowners, there needs to be more oversight to ensure that wealthier landlords, especially negligent and absentee slumlords, do not get this money with few strings attached. There needs to be guarantees that landlords cannot raise rents post-weatherization or evict tenants ‘by right’. There also needs to be a mechanism to fine absentee landlords who won’t weatherize their units to the detriment of their tenants. Until then, this program, especially considering the new funding source, will likely hurt low-income renters at the expense of wealthier landlords.