The Underbelly of “Affordability” and Burlington’s Dirty Housing Circuit: A Curious Case Study in Inadvertent Resistance
The last person living at 70 H Street to sign a formal rental agreement, M—, moved out of the house three years ago. He exited the house, known for being Phish’s basement venue in the band’s early days, in a fashion typical for our decaying housing market; M— got out of his beat-up, mold-riddled apartment as soon as a better room appeared in town for a price he could afford.
At least ten other residents have lived in the 5-bedroom house since M—’s move, each renting out a room from a prior resident sans contact with Mr. X, the owner and property manager of 70 H Street.
While allowing tenants some freedom of mobility, this common practice of informally re-assigning rental units has an underbelly which we don’t adequately address in Burlington: duly allowing incompetent landlords to avoid the ever-so-arduous and costly grind of conducting walk-throughs and attending to maintenance, as the law requires that landlords do.
However, in a market where the average housing cost is grossly unaffordable for the majority of local wage earners, what is a single-twenty-something-transitioning-low-wage renter to do? Create a home in a place that doesn’t cost too much, stay out of the landlord’s hair so as to avoid a theoretical rent increase, and get used to having a tub that won’t drain. And, as anyone who has sought an open room in Burlington’s $400-$600/month range can tell you, these informal re-assignment arrangements quite often appear to be the only reasonable rental options in town.
On November 5th of this year Mr. X stuffed a letter into the front door of #70, addressed to “Any residents of 70 H Street,” announcing his intent to conduct a walk-through of the property at 1 pm the following day. The letter also stated that Mr. X no longer owned a key to his house, as unknown renters at some point along the way had changed the locks, and, as such, if the house remained locked at 1 pm on the 6th Mr. X would be forced to drill the door open in order to enter his property.
S—, one of the current residents of #70, read the letter from his landlord and suddenly had to ask himself a very serious question: am I trespassing in my house?
Considering squatting as defined by ‘residing on a property to which one has no title, right, or lease,’ I have squatted in five of my nine apartments in Chittenden County over the years. I feel confident saying that S—, an old friend, has technically squatted in almost every home he has ever lived in.
The letter on November 5th was the end of a long line of conflict, beginning in late July when the upstairs toilet in #70 ceased to function. The five residents of the house decided it was time to reach out to their landlord for a fix, as the downstairs toilet had been mostly non-functioning since before any of them had moved in. Their attempts to reach out to Mr. X – whom none of them had ever met – were unsuccessful.
The five gathered around the coffee table and took stock of their situation. Not only was the plumbing broken and landlord unresponsive, but the thick mold which had taken over the basement of #70 was beginning to spread to the first floor of the house. Water from a leak in the roof was dripping down from one bedroom’s ceiling. Asbestos insulation was drooping out of holes in the back room. The back door was splitting and could no longer be locked. Previous complaints to Mr. X had not been answered.
They discussed how none of them had met Mr. X, and how most of them had paid rent by mailing money orders to a Burlington P.O. Box. Since moving into #70, each resident, on at least one occasion, had either missed or been late on a month’s rent – and no one had ever reached out to them about it.
A Google search was conducted, and found that one Mr. X residing in Burlington had died the year before. Another article said that X Property Management, which has a 1-star review online, had gone out of business due to fraud. What if these X’s were all the same, and years worth of tenant’s money orders were piling up in an old P.O. Box? The five, who paid $2600/month collectively in rent, decided to fix the toilet themselves and cease paying rent until the owner of #70 came to the table to discuss making necessary repairs to the house.
In September a letter was stuffed under the front door of #70. It was signed by Mr. X and asked the current residents to contact him immediately at a phone number listed. Nobody answered the residents’ call, and the voicemail at the number listed was full. Their calls were not returned.
What followed, and led up to Mr. X’s recent announcement that he would be drilling through the front door, was a convoluted back-and-forth of avoidance. Mr. X put a letter under the front door saying that everyone needed to vacate the house immediately. He continued to not return their calls. Mr. X put a letter under the front door addressed to M— and the other residents M— had lived with in #70 three years prior, claiming these long-gone tenants owed X Property Management just over $12,000.
After some time Mr. X finally spoke on the phone with one current resident of #70— and offered him a place in one of X Property Management’s other properties – but a special deal for him alone, none of the other five residents. One day Mr. X came to the house, knocked on the door, and, when S— answered, simply asked that the residents move their cars so the driveway would appear to be up to code when the city’s driveway inspector came. The next day, Mr. X stuffed a letter under the door stating that the house needed to be vacated by the previous day’s date.
What could possibly have been the homeowner’s reasoning for acting in such a non-productive manner, given the benefit of the doubt that total incompetence was not the root cause? The only answer seems to be a familiar trend in Burlington: by bullying the residents of 70 H Street into either paying rent or getting out of the house without beginning a formal, legal eviction process, Mr. X could avoid spending the money on making the house legally habitable and could simply rent out the property to five new tenants desperate for affordable rent.
The result of malpractice such as this is easy to see in much of Burlington’s privately owned lower-cost housing: a constant cycle of young, desperate renters, moving in and out of homes which should be removed from the market due to their state of disrepair and dangerous conditions such as mold, mildew, leaks, and lingering asbestos.
Anarchists have long utilized squatting as an active form of resistance, coordinating efforts to move a community through the phases of occupation, habitation, and eviction as a form of protest against housing shortages, affordability, and renter exploitation, in addition to the broader anarchist enemies of capitalism, displacement, and wage-slavery. As Sara Nuta writes in her 2017 NYU Democracy Lab article “Welcome to the Occupation: Squatting and Resistance from Berlin to New York of the two cities’ squatting traditions, “… squatters in both cities developed a new understanding of urban space; they protested and continue to fight against decay and scarcity by emphasizing re-appropriation and the right to the city… and shed light on the value of the right of the urban citizen, the importance of having creative neighborhoods, and housing as a right rather than a privilege.”
Despite the holes in the walls and mold in the basement, 70 H Street had existed for years in Burlington as a vibrant collective house known for hosting local indie art exhibits and basement concerts. All that S— and his roommates wanted was for Mr. X to return the house to a livable condition. Now, they are pretty sure that the answer to their question, “Am I trespassing in my house?” is definitely “yes”, and they are desperately seeking immediately available housing within their price range in Burlington – a tough find in mid-November.
Perhaps the example of inadvertent resistance set by the former residents of 70 H Street can set a new example for resistance against the current system in Burlington. How would things change if a system of support was set in place, empowering all tenants being taken advantage of to cease paying for their right to live? While putting rent in arrears remains an option for well-educated leasees who have documentation of the state of their home when they moved in, life beyond cut-and-dry rental agreements must be addressed.
And, just imagine: perhaps if the people living in tent villages were supported in their efforts to continue occupation of the land gifted to Cambrian Rise, local artists set up un-authorized collaborative space in the limbo-ed Moran Plant, or concerned citizens took up free rent in the basement of the Church Street Marketplace, the voice of the spirited Burlingtonites could be heard more loudly.