VT: How Pot Friendly Are Burlington Landlords

Photo Credit: Robert F. Bukaty

What do pets and pot plants have in common? If you’re a renter, you’ll have to check with your landlord before bringing them into your apartment.

There are nearly 10,000 rental units in Vermont’s largest city. With pot legalization going into effect July 1, many Burlington landlords are trying to figure out how to balance protecting their properties with allowing their tenants to take advantage of the state’s law.

“In my mind, if it’s allowable by law and it doesn’t put anybody at risk, have at it,” landlord Bill Bissonnette said. “I can’t deny them the right that the state of Vermont says they have.”

Bissonnette owns about 300 properties throughout the Old North End and near the University of Vermont that rent ranges from $1,100 for a studio to $4,200 for a six-bedroom apartment. He said he knows he has the legal right to ban marijuana on his properties but doesn’t feel like he should. He considers himself a supporter of marijuana legalization.

“We’ve just started to think about it,” said Erik Hoekstra, the managing partner of Redstone Properties, which owns over a dozen residential buildings throughout Burlington, Winooski and elsewhere in Vermont.

The bill that Gov. Phil Scott signed into law in January allows adults to grow marijuana plants at home, “on property lawfully in possession of the cultivator or with the written consent of the person in lawful possession of the property.” A person growing marijuana without their landlord’s written consent can be subject to a fine of up to $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense and $500 for subsequent offenses.

The law limits marijuana use to “individual dwellings,” and prohibits consuming marijuana on any street, alley, park or sidewalk as well as places like hotel rooms, restaurants, workplaces and stores.

The law also permits landlords to ban use and possession of marijuana on their properties.

Hoekstra, whose current Flynn Avenue project is his company’s sixth housing-based development in Burlington since 2012, said that he has no real aversion to the idea of marijuana but has concerns about some of the logistical issues.

He said he worries about indoor marijuana cultivation leading to mold or fire risk. Most indoor marijuana setups include a growing light and the plant requires regular watering.

All of Redstone’s buildings include a no-smoking clause in their lease, he added.

“It doesn’t matter what you’re smoking,” he said. He said the company is examining their existing leases, rules and regulations to decide if there’s anything that needs to be added to address marijuana smoking.

Doug Boyden, who rents about 75 percent of his Burlington apartments to students, said he will most likely keep his existing leases  and would deal with requests to grow marijuana on a case-by-case basis, even though he himself is against marijuana legalization.

He said he bans tobacco smoking in his apartments because the leftover smell can be unpleasant.

“I don’t feel that the smell of pot has the same negative effect for other people,” he said. “I don’t fault people for smoking pot in my apartments.”

Tenants have asked to grow vegetables or keep chickens, he said, and he said he always agrees as long as they promise to return the property to its original state.

As long as growing marijuana didn’t damage the apartment, he said he would most likely be okay with it. He would not necessarily treat students differently, he said, although he said he would feel obliged to inform lease co-signers that the tenant wished to grow marijuana.

In Massachusetts, where home-growing up to six plants for personal use has been legal since December 2016, landlords are still wrestling with concerns about marijuana on their properties, said Doug Quattrochi, the executive director of Mass Landlords, a group that advocates for property owners.

The state is currently working on implementing a legal sales model.

Quattrochi said he thinks legalization is the right direction and a good thing for property owners, especially as marijuana-related convictions can bar people from housing. But, he said, landlords still have concerns.

Their No. 1 concern, he said, has been unsafe grow operations, echoing Hoekstra’s concern about sloppy growing set-ups damaging property. No. 2 is marijuana’s unclear status under federal law.

“Can a landlord advertise a weed-friendly apartment?” Quattrochi wondered. He said he believes that people who want to smoke marijuana can generally find smoke-friendly apartments.

The standard lease forms his organization provides to landlords prohibit growing and smoking, he said, but allow vaping and consumption of edibles.

Unlike Vermont’s law, which allows landlords to ban any possession of marijuana on their properties, landlords can ban marijuana smoking or growing, Quattrochi said, but can’t ban consumption entirely.

Quattrochi said he generally recommends that landlords communicate with their tenants about marijuana.

“A dialogue is the right thing to do,” he said.