Hartland building the latest to see renters ousted en masse after sale to Boston firm MG2

By JUSTIN CAMPFIELD

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 02-04-2023 10:51 PM

HARTLAND — Less than a year after it issued “no cause” eviction notices to the residents of 18 apartments in Quechee, a Boston real estate investment company with an expanding Upper Valley portfolio has given residents of eight apartments in Hartland until March 15 to vacate their homes.

The eviction notices were issued on behalf of MG2, which according to town property records purchased the property located at 1 Vermont Route 12 last September from longtime owner and BG’s Market proprietor Bill Gaucher for $2 million. The parcel is adjacent to the three corners intersection at the core of the town and comprises 10 residential apartments and five retail spaces, including a post office, the Hartland Diner and the market — which will be owned and operated by MG2 when it reopens after remodeling on Friday.

It has been a period of upheaval for tenants since the new owners took over. First the residents, who were on month-to-month leases, received notice via a letter taped to their doors on Oct. 31 that their rent was going up, in some cases nearly doubling. Then, on Dec. 1, eight residents received eviction notices with the March 15 deadline. The tenants’ rentals were terminated “as a result of a no-cause eviction and the landlord’s decision not to renew” their leases, according to a copy of a notice provided to the Valley News.

For resident Alison Forkas, who grew up in White River Junction, the eviction notice was jarring, but it was not surprising.

“I saw the writing on the wall as soon as they had given me notification that my rent was being raised 90%,” said Forkas, 31, who lived in her apartment above the laundromat for six years. “There is no way I can pay $1,700 by myself.”

While she was able to find another apartment in Windsor by luck — a friend’s mom went to high school with a landlord who had a unit on Jarvis Street open up — she said that many of her former Hartland neighbors have had a harder time. According to her, neighbors from two units were forced to move in with family, while she knows of residents in at least three other units who have had no luck in their search for new rentals. Residents in two units are employees at BG’s Market and will continue living there, company officials said.

Their difficulty in finding new housing is not unexpected given the state of the market in the Upper Valley, said Andrew Winter, executive director of Twin Pines Housing, a local non-profit that develops and manages affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families.

“The rental market continues to be very tight,” said Winter, who attributes the scarcity of affordable rental units to a number of forces, including low overall supply and rising utility and construction costs. “It’s a tough environment particularly if someone had an apartment near work, and now they find themselves having to commute further and further to get to work. What I’m hearing from landlords and tenants is that those units (closer to jobs) are going within days.”

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An example of how tight the affordable rental market is Twin Pines Housing’s own waiting list for subsidized and unsubsidized rental units, which currently has more than 300 people on it. Winter says that once people gain access to affordable housing they are unlikely to give it up; turnover in the organization’s managed units is very low.

“The likelihood of folks at the bottom of the waitlist getting into a unit any time in the future is very low,” he said.

For its part, and despite the criticism it has received for its actions in the Upper Valley, MG2 contends that it is not to blame for the shortage of affordable rental housing.

“There has been historically and will continue to be an acute rental housing shortage in the Upper Valley,” said Joseph Donovan, MG2’s executive vice president. “That condition preexisted our investment in Hartland and will continue to be an issue. The solution, which has been ignored for decades, is planning and building more rental housing for all levels of household income.”

Community response and debate

As word of the eviction notices spread around town, a group led by the Rev. Amy Davin of the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Hartland, tried to organize efforts to oppose MG2’s displacement of the residents. For her, the issue dovetailed with the church’s mission of “sticking up for the little guy.”

“These people were told with three months’ notice to find a new place to live during one of the worst housing crises in history,” she said. “That is wrong, not fair and cruel.”

Davin organized a couple meetings for impacted tenants and concerned residents at her church but said that the effort to oppose the new landlord’s actions never gained traction.

“By the time we could get people together, the damage was done,” she said. “Residents became resigned to it not working out, and a few had already left. I don’t blame them. They are worried about finding their kids new schools or having a place to live.”

While a formal effort never took hold, MG2’s purchase of the property and subsequent action against residential tenants did create considerable discourse on the town’s Listserv.

Some residents castigated MG2 for forcing out residents in both Quechee and Hartland and lamented the property’s purchase as a larger sign of gentrification. Others contended that the company was free to do what it wanted with the property it purchased, and even some expressed hope that the new ownership would revitalize the property and the core of Hartland along with it.

The “nature of some of the comments in (the) forum” was such that MG2’s Donovan felt compelled to post a statement on the Listserv on Jan. 20.

Despite its eviction notices to tenants in Quechee last winter and in Hartland more recently, Donovan claimed in the statement that MG2 hasn’t “had a single eviction in our Upper Valley portfolio in our several years of ownership.”

Donovan’s use of the word “eviction” seemingly parses the difference between an eviction notice — which notifies a tenant of the termination of tenancy — and an eviction case in which the landlord files a lawsuit seeking to have the tenant removed from the property.

While those subtle legal distinctions may be noteworthy to housing attorneys, they don’t pass muster for Forkas.

“I feel that I was evicted, and so were all of my neighbors,” she said. “Just because they aren’t going through the actual eviction process, they are still drawing up eviction orders. You are still at the end of the day forcing people from their homes.”

Jean Murray, a housing attorney for Vermont Legal Aid, frames the issue in a similar way.

“Most tenants move out on the date of the termination of the tenancy, and so most owners don’t have to go to court,” Murray said. “That doesn’t make the tenant’s move-out voluntary.”

The statement also said that MG2 offers several forms of assistance to impacted residents, including financial assistance with relocation and help applying for rental subsidies, although Forkas said the company didn’t offer those or any other forms of assistance to her.

When asked during a phone interview if MG2 provided assistance to the residents in Hartland, Donovan said that he could not talk about any discussions the company may have had with residents.

Repair and return to market

Despite the debate, Winter, Twin Pines’ director, suggests that the purchase, and others like it, that are occurring across the region may have at least one small silver lining.

“Some properties in the region have suffered from underinvestment,” Winter said, while not speaking directly about the Hartland parcel. “People are living there, and it’s hard to do renovations while they are there and the property owner doesn’t have the capital to do it.”

That the Hartland units need repair and updating is an area of agreement between Forkas and MG2. Donovan said plans are underway to repair and remodel each unit “as needed” once it becomes unoccupied.

“Typically, when a unit becomes available, we’ll go in and look at the core elements of the unit, which would include things like kitchens, baths, lighting, flooring and fixtures,” he said. “Depending on the condition, some or all of those individual elements would be replaced or upgraded.

“At the end of the day, we want our rental units and apartments to be updated, safe and clean housing.”

Donovan couldn’t give a timeline as to when the units will return to the market, but he said that when they do return the monthly rents will be close to what the company asked the prior residents to pay in their Oct. 31 notice.

“I think what we sent (previous residents) is indicative of the market rents for those units, so I would assume they’d be consistent with that.”

Moving forward

The community’s acceptance of MG2 will be put to the test when the company reopens BG’s Market under its ownership on Friday. The company took over management of the store from Gaucher on Jan. 1 of this year and has been working on aesthetic upgrades such as new ceiling grids and updated lighting systems, as well as bringing the space up to code.

But MG2 said changes to the way the store is operated will be minimal.

“Besides physical changes in the store, which were due, change will be incremental and done over time based on feedback from customers,” said Donovan, who noted that MG2 retained 100% of the store’s staff in order to ensure continuity.

The fate of other commercial operations in the complex are still to be determined. The post office’s lease is up for renewal in the first quarter of 2023, and Donovan said the company is in discussions with the owner of the Hartland Diner.

Despite the negative reaction of some in Hartland, Donovan wrote in his statement posted to the Listserv that the company hopes to be a positive addition to the community.

“We understand change is difficult, especially in a small community like Hartland, but change is inevitable,” wrote Donovan. “We will do our best to be a good neighbor and a contributing member of the community through our local staff.”

But for Forkas, who reluctantly relocated to Windsor, those assertions have come too late.

“I loved Hartland, and I miss it dearly,” she said. “It’s a special little community, and I loved being a part of it. I was robbed of that.”

Justin Campfield can be reached at jhcampfield@gmail.com.

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