Out of House and Home: Chittenden County Landlords Are Evicting at a Record Pace. But It’s the Sheriff Who Comes Knocking. | Housing Crisis | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Out of House and Home: Chittenden County Landlords Are Evicting at a Record Pace. But It’s the Sheriff Who Comes Knocking. 

Published December 6, 2023 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated December 13, 2023 at 10:04 a.m.

click to enlarge Sheriff Dan Gamelin - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Sheriff Dan Gamelin

Chittenden County Sheriff Dan Gamelin drove slowly between long rows of mobile homes until he reached the Milton address printed on a judge's order. Then he parked his unmarked Chevy Tahoe and clutched the court papers, unsure what to expect next. Gamelin was a courier, and the message to the family living in this gray, single-wide trailer was that they were being evicted.

He strode to the front door and knocked seven times, quickly and firmly. He waited, then knocked 10 times more.

Heather Rushford peered through a window at the six-foot-three man who had planted himself on her porch. Gamelin, still a weight lifter at age 62, looked formidable even in street clothes. She cracked open the door.

"Hi, Heather?" Gamelin said. "I'm with the sheriff's office. I got some more stuff from the park. More paperwork."

"What?" she asked. Rushford and her husband had purchased the trailer eight years before and were raising two boys in it. But they still owed the mobile home park $400 each month to rent the lot it occupied, and money had been tight since Heather lost work at the Keurig factory in 2021. The pair, since separated, were two months behind when the park manager filed eviction paperwork with the court in September. The Rushfords didn't provide a legal response, so the judge decided in the landlord's favor. Now, the sheriff explained, Heather and her kids had 14 days to get out.

Gamelin has been having these conversations for 41 years, but never as frequently as in the past several months. Renters are contending with steep rent hikes that have gobbled up pandemic-era wage gains, and they're trapped by minuscule vacancy rates and soaring property values. Inflation, a spiraling drug epidemic and a threadbare social services network are only making things worse. The result is a perilous moment for renters and a tumultuous one for landlords.

Gamelin summed up the situation in one word: "bad." Vermont property owners are on pace to file more than 1,900 eviction cases in 2023, at least 200 more than in pre-pandemic years. The spike has been most pronounced in Chittenden County.

Every working day, Gamelin and his deputies are knocking on at least one tenant's door, either to warn them that time is running out or that they have to go. For the sheriff, it means more work. For tenants, eviction can be a devastating, traumatic blow that entrenches them in poverty and exacerbates health problems.

Gamelin urged Rushford to call the attorney for the park and work out a last-minute deal. Otherwise, the sheriff said, he would return in two weeks, a few days after Thanksgiving, and stand watch as someone from the park disconnected her power and water.

"They can do that with two small children in the home?" she asked the sheriff.

"They can," Gamelin said, his breath a cloud in the frigid air.

One of Rushford's boys, home sick from school, made a joke about riding his bike to stay warm if the electricity were cut. "Do you want to feel how cold it is out here?" she asked him. They all shared a short laugh.

But Rushford was stricken with worry. She didn't have the money. It would take time to sell her trailer. She knew that homelessness was surging to unprecedented levels in Chittenden County, and she wondered how moving into one of the state's emergency motel rooms would affect her boys. More than 250 people are now living on the streets, some in the tents that have become common sights in Burlington parks and even cemeteries. Those who have fallen into homelessness are waiting two months just to meet with social workers who can try to help them climb out.

"Ms. Rushford, just make sure you take care of this," the sheriff told her.

"OK, I will. Thank you," she said.

Gamelin walked back to his car, where more court papers lay on the center console. There was another stack back at his office, with more on the way. It was only Monday.




'In a hole'

click to enlarge Changing a lock - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Changing a lock

Earlier that morning, the sheriff and one of his deputies walked up to a third-floor Colchester apartment to find the front door ajar. Gamelin boomed: "Hello? Sheriff's office! Hello?"

He looked into a dark room. A judge had ordered the tenant out 14 days earlier, but as far as anyone knew, she was still living here. On this, the 15th day, the sheriff's task was to put the landlord "into possession" of the unit — in other words, to force the tenant to leave.

As an armed enforcer of private property rights for the county, Gamelin had already performed this duty 217 times during 2023, nearly once every business day. In recent weeks, Gamelin had negotiated with a Burlington couple who barricaded their apartment door. He'd argued with a single mother who insisted Gamelin had come on the wrong day. He'd encountered an unsuspecting subletter who didn't know of the eviction. And Gamelin had removed another tenant from a needle-ridden house on lower Church Street in Burlington that the landlord, Matt Handy, introduced as "my nightmare." The week before Thanksgiving, he was to evict six more households.

The sheriff and his deputy flipped on their flashlights and began repossession No. 218. Once they stepped inside, their lights revealed a serrated combat knife lying near the entryway. It reminded Gamelin of a sheriff's deputy in California he'd heard about, who was stabbed last year while serving eviction papers to a mentally ill woman whom police then shot and killed. Gamelin himself has been bitten by dogs and had a gun pulled on him. Several years ago, when Gamelin showed up to evict a tenant in Winooski, the man fatally shot himself.

Gamelin and the deputy searched the bedroom, the bathroom and the kitchen. No one was home. "This was easy," Gamelin announced.

Along with the combat knife, the tenant had left most of her belongings. A pot of cooked rice sat on the cold stove. Photos of children were clipped to the fridge. A mattress lay on the floor, and a whiteboard on a wall displayed messages from houseguests.

All of it was now the property of Champlain Housing Trust, the nonprofit that is likely the state's largest landlord. The organization could legally throw everything away, but the property manager planned to keep it for a while. "If she contacts us and wants her stuff, we'll arrange a time," the manager said.

The property manager followed Gamelin into the kitchen while a maintenance man changed the locks. The housing trust had tried to work with the tenant, the manager explained to Gamelin. But the situation was complex. The tenant had no income, so she relied on a federal voucher to pay all of her $941 monthly rent. She was using drugs. As problems arose, a team of social workers employed by the trust negotiated alternatives to eviction. Then her voucher was revoked.

The tenant owed the housing trust $7,352 in rent, attorney's fees and court costs.

That's how the property manager came to be standing in the kitchen of a woman who, not long ago, had nurtured her kids while working at a local daycare. "I also remember what she was like five years ago, when she was sober," the property manager told Gamelin.

Despite its best efforts, the housing trust is evicting more tenants. So is the Burlington Housing Authority. The nonprofit agencies have not increased rents as dramatically as private landlords, though a failure to pay is usually why tenants are shown the door.

More tenants are falling behind on rent, which has prompted some agencies to clamp down. The nonprofit Housing Trust of Rutland County, which has seen 16 percent of its rent revenue go unpaid, now takes the first steps toward eviction after a single missed payment.

The maintenance man finished installing the new lock and joined Gamelin and the property manager in the kitchen. He works full time and makes good money, but lately, he said, it felt like he, too, was living on the edge. He has three kids to feed, and the price of food and fuel keeps going up. The maintenance man told Gamelin he didn't expect the onslaught of evictions to ease anytime soon.

"We're all in a hole," the man said.

Gamelin got back into his Tahoe and drove toward Milton, where he would serve Rushford the order that started her 14-day clock. He turned past his childhood home in Winooski, a brick ranch house where his French Canadian parents raised him and four siblings, including his twin brother. Gamelin joined the Chittenden County Sheriff's Office in 1982, at age 21. After his longtime boss, Kevin McLaughlin, decided to retire last year, Gamelin ran for sheriff unopposed and was elected.

Serving eviction papers has always been part of Gamelin's work. State law directs Vermont sheriffs to enforce judges' orders, but sheriffs' offices receive scant taxpayer funding. That means landlords are Gamelin's business clients: He charges about $65 an hour for his time. Serving court papers and handling evictions are a significant chunk of his office's work, along with security details and transporting prisoners to court appearances.

Eviction duty isn't one Gamelin sought out, but with practice, he has honed the technique of persuasion under pressure. He generally doesn't wear his uniform to evictions because he thinks it would humiliate residents in front of their neighbors. When talking to tenants, he switches as needed between a deep, authoritative voice and a gentler, forthright one. The effect is that of a man who means business but isn't on a power trip. It was how, a few weeks earlier, he managed to talk down the Burlington couple with the barricaded door and convince them to leave, sparing them a criminal trespass charge.

"Thanks for treating us humane," the newly homeless man told Gamelin as he carried his bags into the elevator.

Back at his South Burlington office, tucked behind the Burlington International Airport, Gamelin keeps a framed copy of a faded Burlington Free Press story that dubbed him the "bearer of bad news." The article captured the satisfaction Gamelin took in tracking down tenants who tried to avoid service.

But at times the work left him weary. A few days earlier, he'd served paperwork to a woman he had known when he was a kid. Gamelin implored her to start packing her things so he wouldn't have to come back in 15 days and force her out.

"Come on," he remembered telling her. "Don't put me in this position."




Orders of the Court

click to enlarge Judge Helen Toor hearing an eviction case - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Judge Helen Toor hearing an eviction case

Evictions often end with Gamelin at the door, but each tenant's fate is determined on the second floor of a marble courthouse in Burlington.

Here, in the civil division of Vermont Superior Court, more than 450 eviction cases have been filed so far in 2023. The tally is already the highest of any year during the past decade, during which it had never surpassed 386, and accounts for the lion's share of the statewide increase.

The surge has put pressure on a courthouse that, during the pandemic, was nearly dormant. A federal decree prevented most evictions, and Vermont funneled more than $100 million to rescue the rental housing industry. The state paid rent for thousands of low-income tenants for up to 18 months, sparing landlords the financial losses that would otherwise follow a stretch of mass unemployment. Evictions plummeted nearly 75 percent statewide.

Yet many renters remained vulnerable. Data collected through the emergency program revealed that as many as 10 percent of the 73,000 renting households in Vermont would likely confront "unbearable" rents after the program ended over the summer, Kathleen Berk, executive director of the Vermont State Housing Authority, testified to state lawmakers in the spring.

Many who work in housing are now questioning whether it was wise to foot tenants' full rent for such a long period of time — and whether the subsidy ended too abruptly for some tenants to handle. Advocates lobbied for a new state-run rent assistance program and other measures to stave off evictions, but lawmakers have yet to fund them.

So, on a November morning, Judge Helen Toor took the bench for another day packed with eviction hearings. She had 11 cases to call before lunch, then two trials in the afternoon.

The court officer stood. "23-CV-02712," she announced. "Attorney Scibek is for the plaintiff, and the defendant is not present."

Toor looked to the landlord's attorney. Few operated as efficiently in the courtroom as Nadine Scibek. She'd made a career representing Vermont landlords, including the big nonprofits. Gamelin had a habit of dropping by Scibek's law office in downtown Burlington to pick up the latest eviction complaints he needed to serve. In September, Scibek had won the first-ever "civility and professionalism" award from the Vermont Bar Association; Judge Toor had nominated her.

"Anything you want to say about this?" Toor asked her.

Scibek said the tenant owed $4,597 in overdue rent to her client, the Winooski Housing Authority. She asked Judge Toor to order the tenant to pay rent into a court-overseen account while the eviction played out.

A so-called "rent escrow order," which a judge has to authorize, is often the quickest way to evict a tenant who is short on cash. If the tenant misses a payment to the escrow account, the judge can immediately grant an order for eviction, and Gamelin can show up seven days later to escort the tenant out.

Scibek had petitioned for the order in July. Because the courts had been so busy, it took almost four months to hold a hearing about it. "That's our fault," Toor told Scibek. She ordered the absent tenant to pay October and November rent — $1,850 — into escrow. Gamelin's office would have to deliver the order.

Landlords usually win in Toor's courtroom, where they almost always have lawyers, and tenants usually do not. Toor has been pushing to level this tilted playing field for years. That's why four attorneys from Legal Services Vermont were huddled outside the second-floor courtroom, offering free legal counsel to defendants.

Vermont does not provide lawyers to defendants in civil court as it must for criminal matters, but help is becoming more accessible. Legal Services runs courtroom clinics in four counties. Through a grant, Vermont Legal Aid spearheads an effort to contact every tenant who faces eviction and offer them help.

The Legal Services attorneys waited for tenants to arrive for their rent-escrow hearings, then introduced themselves and offered a conference room to chat. When tenants took up their offer, Toor delayed the hearing by a few minutes to give the lawyers and clients some time.

In this way, attorney Eric Fanning was able to help a family who had shown up with their infant. Minutes later, his colleague Kyle Clauss hashed out a deal with Scibek for a single mother in college.

Sometimes the attorneys help stop an eviction or connect tenants to the limited funds that are still available to help with back rent, managing attorney Maggie Frye said. In other cases, the best legal strategy is to simply buy more time for the tenant to find another place to go. Often the best the attorneys can do is to clearly explain to a tenant that they are going to lose their home.

"Knowing how much time you have helps you plan and prepare and make good decisions for yourself," Frye said.

But they can only help tenants who call back or make it to a court hearing. Many do not.




'It's Your call'

click to enlarge Gamelin talking on the phone with a landlord during an eviction - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Gamelin talking on the phone with a landlord during an eviction

Landlord Ben Nicholson was waiting for Gamelin at the foot of a driveway in Essex. His tenant, a woman named Hannah, was still inside the largest of three apartments in Nicholson's tired triplex. She'd missed her first court-ordered payment into escrow, and now Nicholson and his wife had been awarded an eviction order. Time was up.

But Hannah was pleading for another day to move out.

"So here's the thing," Gamelin explained to Nicholson.

Evictions for missed escrow payments come with a catch. The landlords could make Hannah leave immediately, but they had to keep her belongings for another seven days. They could give her a few more hours to pack up or set a time with her to clear the place out.

"It's your call," Gamelin said.

The Nicholsons already felt burned. Hannah owed $7,200 in rent, which had been accruing since June at a rate of $1,200 per month. She had made promises and didn't keep them. During that time, drug dealers had begun operating out of the apartment. The Nicholsons had spent another $3,000 on a lawyer to evict her. It was a deep hole for a couple who own 10 apartments.

Gamelin and the Nicholsons went to the back door. Two men whom they didn't recognize walked out of the house and got into a rental car with a New York license plate. Hannah insisted the men were going to come back with a U-Haul. She and her helpers had been packing all night, she said.

"By law, they can just lock this door, and we're done," Gamelin told her.

The sheriff proposed a solution. Ben Nicholson would change the locks now, but Hannah and her helpers could keep packing for another six hours, until 3 p.m. Then Gamelin would come back and see her out. Everyone agreed.

As Nicholson started on the locks, Hannah went to her gray minivan to have a cigarette. She was wearing a Tampa Bay Buccaneers hat and faux-fur boots. There had been a mix-up, she said. The sheriff's office served her eviction order to another woman who had answered the door. That woman didn't live with Hannah and had forgotten to tell her the news for several days, leaving Hannah little time to prepare.

So much still needed to be packed. Hannah, who asked to be identified only by first name so that she could frankly discuss her drug use, had lived here for eight years, much of the time with her three sons and boyfriend. Last winter, her boyfriend moved away. "June is when I fucked up my sobriety," she said.

Once she started using cocaine again, her younger sons went to live with a godparent. A friend who also used drugs came to stay at her place. Then dealers moved in, and, Hannah said, she lost control of the situation. Her apartment became a trap house.

"The people that she had come into my house, they were scary," she said. "They still show up — just out of the blue they'll show up."

One of Gamelin's deputies, Brian Welch, was standing near the minivan. An experienced investigator, Welch knew how these arrangements tended to work. Dealers from East Coast cities trade drugs for a place to stay with users, then operate there until they need to move on. Dealers could "triple the value of the drugs" by selling up north, Welch said.

At the back door, Nicholson was struggling to install the new locks. The couple had never evicted anyone before and were rethinking their investment. "I can tell you this has really shaken our foundation on whether we made the right decision to get into this," he told Gamelin.

The sheriff offered his advice. The next time the Nicholsons were considering a prospective tenant, he said, they should "go down to 175 Main Street, the courthouse, and say, 'Hey, has John Doe or Jane Doe ever been evicted before?'"

While still rare, drug-related evictions have become more frequent since highly addictive fentanyl started showing up in the local drug supply. In a single building this year, Gamelin helped the Burlington Housing Authority evict six tenants from apartments linked to drug dealing. The agency had spent more than 15 months trying to evict another tenant whose apartment appeared to harbor drug dealers. While the eviction case was pending, police said, Denroy Dasent entered the apartment and murdered another visitor. To combat such problems, the housing authority has imposed a zero-tolerance policy for drug dealing and abusive behavior.

Another private landlord in Chittenden County, Mark Williams, paid a tenant he suspected of drug dealing $2,200 to leave; Williams feared that police wouldn't intervene. He'd learned the technique by reading a book by a former Central Intelligence Agency hostage negotiator. It doesn't always work; other tenants have declined Williams' offers because, they told him, finding another apartment would be nearly impossible. So Williams has raised his rents in hopes of attracting wealthier tenants.

"We'll never rent an apartment that's cheap enough for Section 8 people," he said, referring to federal rental vouchers.

Vermont bars discrimination on the basis of public assistance in housing, but landlords can set rents at any price. Climbing monthly rates make it even harder for low-income people to find a place to live.




'Good Luck to You'

Gamelin returned to Essex at the agreed-upon deadline, 3 p.m., but there was no U-Haul in sight. Some of Hannah's other friends had instead arrived with a truck. Her minivan was stuffed. So, still, was the apartment. "Hi, Ben," Hannah said into her cellphone to her landlord. "I do have the sheriff right here if you would like to talk to him."

The Nicholsons agreed to meet her another day to get everything off the property. But she had to sleep somewhere else. Hannah exhaled.

"It's not like I like doing this," Gamelin told her.

"Oh, I know. I respect landlords, because I can understand it," she said.

"They got a business, you know. They've got mortgages," Gamelin said. He added, "Well, good luck to you. I hope things work out for you."

Two days later, Hannah was standing in front of a storage unit in Essex Junction, a few huge rolls of carpet at her feet. Her car was still full of her things, and she still wore the faux-fur boots. A large amethyst, a gem that some believe heals suffering, dangled from her neck.

She'd found a place in Milton where she could stay with a friend for a while. It was a room in a mobile home, she explained, and that room needed flooring. Hannah said she and another friend, who called himself Smitty, found the rolls of carpet on the side of the road. They planned to lay them in Hannah's room.

Hannah, 40, was thin and lacked the strength to lift the rolls of carpet. Mounds of her furniture would remain outside her old apartment long past the deadline the Nicholsons had given. On the lawn, next to the driveway, lay a broken, framed photo of a newborn baby.




Last Chance

click to enlarge A deputy helping an evicted tenant carry belongings - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • A deputy helping an evicted tenant carry belongings

No one who helped run the Milton mobile home park had heard from Rushford since Gamelin delivered the news of her imminent eviction. But she spoke to Seven Days by phone. Rushford said she was feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place. "I've never been in this type of situation before," she said.

Her plan had been to one day sell her trailer and use the cash as a deposit on a house. Her unemployment, her breakup and the resulting $1,200 in unpaid lot rent were about to upend it.

"I've been thinking about what I need to do, how I'm going to do it," she said. "I'm not really understanding right now."

But she had not called Scibek, the attorney for the park, as Gamelin suggested. Nor had she gotten in touch with the park property manager, a woman named Silvia Iannetta who worked for a Rhode Island-based company. The Milton Mobile Home Co-op is owned by its residents, and Iannetta had been following the policies the residents created. She sent the notice to vacate after the Rushfords didn't pay lot rent for two months. Iannetta would have preferred to work out a repayment plan, but her calls, emails and letters had gone unanswered.

"We can't do that if we can't talk to somebody," Iannetta said.

A few days after Thanksgiving, Gamelin got back into his Tahoe and drove toward Milton in the snow. He would provide security as someone cut the electricity and water to Rushford's trailer. At least it wouldn't be as punishing as the old days, Gamelin remembered, when state law allowed park owners to haul off the trailer as soon as they took possession of the lot. The law now gave trailer owners 90 days to sell or clear out.

But Gamelin had another eviction to handle first. He pulled next to a sloping, snow-covered driveway on the outskirts of Essex. The landlord, a bearded man in a Carhartt jacket, wanted the tenants out of a green house tucked into the woods. He asked Gamelin to issue them notices of trespass, which meant they could be charged with a crime if they came back to get the rest of their belongings.

One of the tenants, a 19-year-old woman, argued with Gamelin from a second-story window. He gave her 20 minutes to pack up, then got out his notepad and started writing out the trespass notices. Another argument broke out.

"Do not try to come back here!" the landlord yelled to the tenant.

"All my stuff is here!" she yelled back.

"That's too bad!" he said. "You had plenty of notice!"

"We're not going to debate this here," Gamelin interjected. "That's something to deal with later."

The woman, her mother and a man piled their clothes and a Wi-Fi router into garbage bags, pulled on boots and trudged to an old sedan at the bottom of the driveway. Gamelin stood watching.

His phone rang; Scibek was calling. Rushford's ex had made a deal to pay the back rent and end the eviction.

The money had just come through, Scibek told Gamelin. The sheriff hung up.

"Paid in full," he said.

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About The Author

Derek Brouwer

Derek Brouwer

Bio:
Derek Brouwer is a news reporter at Seven Days, focusing on law enforcement and courts. He previously worked at the Missoula Independent, a Montana alt-weekly.

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