Landlords vulnerable in drug war; wary of tenants who deal drugs

BRANDON — The drug problem in Vermont has long economic fingers that have gripped the state. Drug abuse increases police budgets and raises taxes. It is a public health issue and increases insurance premiums. It adds to the prison population, and therefore, the state corrections budget. It contributes to the high school dropout rate. It feeds poverty. It destroys families. It breaks hearts.
A spate of recent drug raids in this area and around the state has again brought Vermont’s heroin problem in particular to the fore. The Vermont State Police Drug Task Force, sheriff’s departments and local police, along with federal law enforcement officials, have been working together to stem the tide of heroin from Vermont streets and neighborhoods. The raids, in Brandon, Leicester, Ferrisburgh, Burlington and Bennington, resulted in 64 arrests and seizure of roughly 2,000 grams of heroin.
And while some of those arrested in these raids are from out of state, most are local. Many, along with the addicts they serve, were born and raised in Vermont. And they all have to live somewhere.
That is the root of a problem that has received little attention but is ongoing in many small towns around Rutland and Addison counties: Landlords who need tenants often end up with tenants who have drug problems.
The issue came to light after an out-of-state landlord contacted State Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, seeking help with a Brandon rental property she owns. The landlord had already evicted two people from her Church Street building last September after seeing evidence of drug activity at that location. She contacted Brandon Police Chief Chris Brickell asking him to issue no trespass notices against a list of people who had visited the apartment while the former tenants were living there. Brickell informed her that he does not have the legal right to issue such notices just because she owns the building. By law, the person occupying an apartment is in control of the dwelling, he said, and that person may request the notice against trespass, not the building owner.
As far as suspicion of further drug activity, the chief told the landlord that he was in touch with the Vermont State Police Task Force about the property, but without proof there was not much he could do.
“I have an obligation to treat people fairly and if I don’t have the evidence to arrest them, they are afforded the same rights as anyone else,” Brickell said.
The landlord wondered why, with the passage and renewal of the Patriot Act, police can’t use wiretaps and other tools to gather evidence on drug suspects at certain locations.
The Patriot Act was enacted in 2001 to allow agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation to loosen restrictions on the use of things like wiretaps, business record searches and “sneak-and-peak” surprise search warrants to gather evidence against those suspected of being terrorists. After renewal of some provisions of the act in 2010, the FBI is still able to use many of these tools. And in fact, between 2006 and 2009, according to the Washington Post, 1,618 search warrants for drugs were issued under the auspices of the Patriot Act, as opposed to just 15 for terrorist-related cases.
That said, the Patriot Act was not created to enable small-town police departments in gathering evidence against suspected drug dealers. The funding and staff just aren’t there, and Brickell said he is interested in the individual when it comes to drug activity, not the location.
“The location is circumstantial,” he said. “We deal with the person. We have people who move four or five times in one year, all within Brandon. Others move out of town, then move back to town.”
Brickell said his department keeps up with who the suspected players are in the Brandon drug trade, where they are staying, and who they are interacting with.
Some landlords are dissatisfied with the response of local law enforcement, saying it’s the job of the police to protect their property and that drug traffic is bad for the neighborhood, the town and the landlords’ investments. But while Brickell said he will respond to any drug complaint that comes through his department, the onus is on the landlords to choose their tenants more carefully.
Drugs have been a problem in the Brandon area and statewide for years, but there has been a noticeable shift in the drug of choice. For the last decade, abuse of prescription painkillers like OxyContin and OxyCodone has been rampant in Vermont. However, the cost, increased vigilance around prescription fraud and changes in the pharmaceutical industry have made these drugs harder for addicts to acquire and abuse. In their place comes an old favorite: heroin.
In many ways, it’s the perfect drug. It’s cheap (about $5 for a bag containing enough for a high), easier to find, and easier to use.
In 2010, OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma developed an abuse-deterring version of the drug that turns to gel when crushed, making it harder for people to snort or inject for a quick high.
On the street, OxyContin now fetches $25-$30 per 10-20 mg. pill. An 80 mg. dose can cost up to $80.
In 2012, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that seemed to prove this shift from painkillers to heroin. The study included more than 2,500 people who were dependent on opioids, who were followed between July 2009 and March 2012. During that period there was a 17 percent decrease in OxyContin abuse, heroin abuse doubled, almost one-fourth of participants were able to abuse OxyContin despite the reformulation, and 66 percent switched to heroin.
It’s no secret that many landlords tend to rent to tenants who receive some kind of public assistance. Often people who earn a lower income cannot afford to buy a home and must settle for renting an apartment. Others may be on disability, are unable to work, and cannot afford to own their own home and must rent as well. And, of course, three years into the economic recovery from recession, more and more people have lost their jobs and have had to take jobs that pay less. Many have lost their homes and are now renters. Still others are merely young people who are unable to earn and save enough money to own a home.
Whatever the reason, there will always be a market for rental housing. Unfortunately, with the investment of a rental property comes the crapshoot of finding and keeping responsible, paying tenants. It’s a time-consuming process that involves a certain level of trust, but Brickell said he doesn’t think Brandon landlords are choosy enough about who they rent to.
“A lot of these issue stem from people the landlords brought in,” he said. “Do your due diligence. Do background checks on people. Call former landlords, check court records, criminal records. These are public records, and it costs nothing but maybe the price of making copies.”
Even if a more involved background check ends up costing the landlord some money, Brickell said it’s a small price to pay in the face of legal fees for an eviction and costly repairs to a rental property.
“It’s money well spent prior to renting to a bad tenant,” he said. “You’re a property owner, and you have to treat people fairly, but you also have to protect your financial investment.”
Bryan Jones has owned rental properties in Addison and Rutland counties for 35 years. He currently owns two rental houses on Franklin Street in Brandon encompassing a total of five units. He also owns rental properties in Salisbury and Proctor.
And Jones has had tenants who were drug dealers.
“I had one tenant and the traffic in and out made it obvious what he was doing,” Jones said. “I told him I was going to call the cops if he wasn’t gone by the weekend. He left.”
While he agrees with Brickell that the best offense against bad tenants is a good background check, Jones admits he could do a better job in that area.
“I’m sure I don’t do a thorough enough check,” he said. “I understand being careful about who you rent to, but as a landlord, you have to be able to pay the bills.”
Jones said that means that sometimes renting to a questionable tenant is better than having an empty unit.
“So if at some point you have to say ‘Yes’ to someone who’s a bad choice but the best choice you have, you do it,” he said. “Sometimes, it works out, sometimes you get stiffed. It’s easy to say ‘Screen your tenants and make good choices,’ but those people don’t have these bills to pay.”
That said, Jones said he tries to get as much information from a potential tenant as possible, including previous landlord and employment information going back at least three years. But Jones also said that potential renters can play fast and loose with the facts, using relatives with different names as references and lying about their employment and income.
Patrick Riordan is a landlord in Rutland and treasurer of the Vermont Rental Property Owners Association, an organization with 290 member landlords statewide. He agreed that background checks are the best way for landlord to find the best tenants. To that end, the VRPOA starting offering members discounted credit checks on potential tenants.
Riordan said more so than drugs, the biggest challenge most Vermont landlords face is the eviction law, which makes getting rid of a tenant a long, drawn out and expensive process. Riordan said on average, it takes four to five months.
“It handcuffs the landlord,” Riordan said of the eviction process. “If a tenant refuses to move, it can be four or five months during which they don’t pay rent, on top of the legal expenses the landlord has to pay.”
Riordan said the VRPOA is working with legislators to streamline Vermont’s eviction law.
People are inherently curious (i.e. nosey) and Brickell said that vigilant neighbors to buildings where there is suspected drug activity have a responsibility to share information with local police.
“There are things that people see when we aren’t there,” he said. “And they have to take a stand and say, ‘This is not OK and I don’t want this in my neighborhood.’”
But he added that fear of retaliation is a major deterrent to most people sharing information with police. Brickell said for the most part, that fear is unfounded.
“That’s the biggest drawback and we deal with it all the time,” he said. “A lot of the time, it’s unrealistic. If you allow someone to intimidate you and that someone is allowed to continue their criminal behavior because of that, that is equally bad, so what do you have to lose by contacting the police?”
Bryan Jones said he believes apathy, not fear of retaliation, is the main reason why most neighbors don’t report drug activity.
“Most people just ignore it, but I don’t think they’re worried about retaliation,” he said. “I think most people think, ‘Live and let live.’ I think people look at (drug activity) as a victimless crime, but it trickles down to kids and drugs lead to other crimes. It’s NOT a victimless crime.” 

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