Landlords seek help removing squatters
By Gordon Dritschilo
Staff Writer | August 07,2014
Bob Marrama says he got stuck with a tenant he never agreed to rent to.
The Killington man, who owns four properties in the city, said a tenant took in his mother and her friend. The two women applied to stay in the apartment after the tenant left, Marrama said, and refused to leave when he decided not to rent to them.
“They have nothing in writing saying they’re supposed to be there,” he said. “It’s ludicrous. This is private property.”
He is offering them several hundred dollars in “moving expenses” to get out without going through the eviction process, which he said could have taken him months and cost him hundreds more.
“This isn’t only affecting me as a landlord,” Marrama said. “It affected the community. I know landlords have a bad name for not keeping up with their properties, but I think that’s because of how easy people can get away with not paying.”
Thaddeus Lorentz, attorney for the Vermont Rental Property Owners Association, said Marrama is not alone and that landlords in his situation don’t get the support they need from the legal system. He hopes to remedy that in the next Legislative session with the help of Rep. Larry Cupoli, R-Rutland.
The term “squatter” is often used to refer to tenants who have stopped paying rent but won’t leave. However, such people are considered tenants under the law, with legal protections, as is anyone who has been renting a room in a hotel for at least 30 days.
But Lorentz said that should rule out people like those Marrama is dealing with.
“The statute only applies to people who have an agreement with each other,” Lorentz said. “If the squatter does not have an agreement with the landlord, it doesn’t apply.”
In a case where a landlord never agreed to rent to someone, the lawyer said the landlord should be able to have them removed with a trespass order. But he said police are “gun-shy” about getting involved in such disputes, due to a lawsuit from several years ago.
Rutland Police Chief James Baker said Lorentz’s reading of the law is far from the only one.
“You can talk to 10 lawyers and get 10 different interpretations,” he said. “We are very careful about where we get involved in these issues because it exposes the city to enormous liability.”
Baker said his officers don’t remove squatters because the definition of a squatter versus a tenant is a legal hair the police department does not want to try splitting.
“When you’re removing someone from a place they live without some sort of civil court order backing it — that’s not something the police should do,” he said. “The interpretations between the parties can be very different. That’s what civil courts are for.”
The problem with that, Lorentz said, is that the law as written makes it difficult to take a squatting case to court.
“Frankly, I don’t know how to go to court because the statute is antiquated,” he said. “It deals with land and farmers who till the land. It’s like an 1840s statute. ... Nobody even knows how to use it. It’s just ancient. By creating a statute that is cumbersome to operate, you drive up the costs for the landlords.”
There are also multiple bureaucratic steps at which the process can be held up. Lorentz said the difficulty of dealing with squatters and problematic tenants has contributed to the neglect in places like the northwest neighborhood.
“People say, ‘I can’t take this any more’ and let the house go,” he said.
Mayor Christopher Louras said that while much of the discussion of revitalization has focused on landlords who are not upholding what the city sees as their responsibilities, there is also a need to help landlords who are trying to uphold those responsibilities but feel stymied by the legal system.
“There should be a tool in the toolbox providing for, let’s call it ‘expedited eviction,’” he said. “It’s going to be a tough row to hoe in the Legislature to make broad policy changes, so we’re going to need a focused approach. Squatters who never had any legal agreement with the landlord is one.”