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Progressives vs. Poor By: Sandy Baird
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, August 23, 2001

Everything You Always Suspected


Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Publisher and Editor


Editor's Note: Some names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent. The facts of the case, however, are as stated by Sandy Baird, an activist and attorney residing in Vermont.

by Sandy Baird, sbaird@burlcol.edu

The Strongs were lucky. A mother and working father with four children, making barely enough to get by, they had located a single family house in Burlington, Vermont. With a Section 8 certificate which made the rent affordable, they moved into a well maintained, attractive home on Ward Street, grateful they had a decent place to live in a gentrified town where housing for people of little means is difficult, if not impossible to locate. The Strongs even had fair enough landlords, the Danbys, a large Lebanese-American extended family who owned many stores and houses, hired large numbers of immigrants in their businesses and maintained sympathy for poor people. Throughout the dealings of the Strongs with the Danbys , the landlords knew the troubles the Strongs would have if this tenancy failed or if they lost their Section 8 certificate. To the Strongs the house on Ward Street was the "best place they ever lived."

Little did the Strongs realize that they had moved into a vipers nest. The street where they moved and the neighborhood they joined was once the Old North End, a neighborhood for people with not much money-- mainly large, low income families, many headed by single mothers on welfare. But the area is losing its dense urban character of small, closely spaced, crowded family homes and apartments. Instead of poor people renting and on occasion owning, a new class and culture is moving to the Old North End, consisting of upwardly mobile, young educated professionals, with few or no children. Many are associated with the Burlington Community Land Trust, a non-profit devoted to what they call moderate ($56,000 per year) income housing. Most are also affiliated with Burlington's ultra liberal, Progressive city administration. Unlike the Strongs and many other low income residents, the new residents of the North End are buying properties rather than renting. With the colonialist mind set of many liberals, they fancy their values are best for the neighborhood and seek to impose suburban ideals on the crowded, noisy, urban scene they find in the Old North End. Quiet, orderly houses with green well watered lawns, the privacy of well spaced homes, the measured, polite speech of the IBM executive or university professor, are to replace city streets where mothers screech at their kids, dogs bark to the accompaniment of a "shut-up", parties and guests are too loud, broken down junkers crowd driveways, children run in the streets rather than being locked in play schools and call each other "fucker" and "shithead".

Trouble began for the Strongs almost immediately. Especially from their powerful neighbor, Wes Collin, who lived next door in his own home with his small family. Collin was a City Councillor and a member of the Progressive Coalition which meets on a regular basis with the Mayor to determine the Progressive Party's agenda and policies for Burlington. Collin was soon offended by the Strongs. They were loud, obnoxious. They had too many guests, "hanging out on the porch", in his face. They talked loudly to each other, lacing their conversation with profanity. Other neighbors made similar complaints. Midge Kevelkian, a film maker and teacher, made the lives of the Strongs miserable. Stating she had allergies, Ms. Kevelkian bitched when cars were running in the Strongs own driveway. She nagged when the Strongs accidentally shovelled snow into her driveway, earning the retort, "I can't help it if a fucking piece of snow gets on yours." Once, when she was at her window glaring at the scene below, one of the Strong children mooned her. Yet another neighbor objected to the Strong's use of flashing Christmas lights and refused to use shades to limit her view of the offending display. The clash between these irreconcilable cultures was revealed when one neighbor reported to the police that Mrs. Strong had called her a "kike.", a complaint which resulted in a criminal charge for "racial slurs". When questioned about the charge Mrs. Strong responded, "Kike! What's a kike?" Mrs. Strong also reportedly claimed she'd been misquoted - "I called her a cunt."

But this was not the first time the new neighborhood life style police had gone into action against a tenant on Ward Street. They had objected to a prior Danby tenant and at that time, a neighborhood meeting was held which Mr. Danby attended. Danby was told that neighbors "expected to be able to interview" prospective tenants before Danby rented out the house again. Danby, attempting to placate the irate neighbors, acceded. The neighbors, emboldened by this prior agreement, determined to oust the Strongs. As one of them stated. "I have worked for their eviction for one year."

In other cities, this clash might have just gone away. A small civil fracas, which authorities would ignore-- being too busy with serious issues like drugs, vandalism and crime. Burlington though, is a "latte town" reflecting the chic and taste of a hip suburban mall. The Strongs violated those standards. Moreover, the Strong's immediate neighbor, Wes Collin, had ties to City Hall. The kind that bind. Soon, the war escalated; police were called, resulting in charges against the Strongs of "stalking" "racial slurs" and "noise violations". Charges, which if they stuck, would haunt the Strongs in future searches for housing. The police were dragged into the fray on what they called "service calls" so often that the Strongs reported the officers were hanging out at their house morning and night. Both the police and the Strongs referred to each other by first names. In a city where obtaining police assistance in response to the noise of all night partying frat boys is nearly impossible, a tie between the city and the Strong's up-in-arms neighbors appeared obvious.

Eventually Wes Collin enlisted the assistance of the City Attorney, Frank Berger, a Progressive appointee of Burlington's Mayor and the chief prosecutor of city ordinances. Wes Collin was a personal friend and political ally of Berger's. In a bulldozer manner, enforcer Berger went to work. Although he later denied using threats to pressure the landlord to evict the Strongs, reports circulated that the City had done just that. The Progressive City of Burlington, with the power to fine for nuisances, was after the reluctant Danby to throw out this disadvantaged family. At a meeting which included the angry neighbors and Chief of Permits and City Attorney Frank Berger, Danby reported he was told "if he didn't do something about this, he would be given all kinds of fines." Berger also prosecuted the Strongs in court where they were convinced to plead to noise offenses. With rising fears of steep legal fees, nuisance fines and other retaliation from a city in which his family owned a number of properties, Danby succumbed to the pressure.

Although on the court record the landlord showed sympathy to the family by stating there was " no problem with them except for the political pressure" although repeatedly expressing concern that "this poor guy with a family would have no place to go," although satisfied with the Strong's rent payment history, the landlord gave in to the city hall you cannot fight. Danby began eviction proceedings in July, 1999, citing "excessive noise and disturbing the neighbors."

When the Strongs amazingly found an effective pro-bono attorney to fight and delay the ejectment action, the "for cause" ejectment was amended to a "no cause eviction because the "pending lawsuit had delayed the termination". This made the termination of the tenancy easier. In Burlington, the socialist city, it was clear that landlords can throw out renters for any reason.

Although the judge in the eviction case appeared to show kindness and understanding to the Strongs, his sympathy had no support in the harsh landlord/ tenant statutes that govern Burlington. He knew too that the Danbys had no "serious problem with the Strongs". The judge also cited the ties to City Hall and the messy political situation of a city law enforcement official taking the side of one group of neighbors against another. But he could not alter the legal outcome of this class/culture war. On August 3, 2000, he delivered a Judgment of eviction to Landlord Danby, who still stalled in execution of it, keeping the Strongs in their home well past Christmas, still able to flash their holiday lights. Luckily, and not without the added vindictive nastiness of a fight to keep their Section 8 certificate, the Strongs found a new place to live in Winooski, a not totally yupped out city across the river from Burlington.

The Strong case arouses the suspicion that quality of life ordinances are selectively enforced-- and rarely used against those who truly deserve the heavy hand of the law. In Burlington, seldom are college students, who form a huge constituency for the Progressive administration , chastised for over crowding; their huge SUV's are not often towed for illegal parking; their drunken shouts at 4am of "Fuck you! No, fuck you!" do not receive the attention shown the Strong's obscenities. Rarely are absentee student ghetto landlords prosecuted for their slums, their deteriorating neighborhoods and their gouging rents. And one doubts that the few remaining streets that house the poor, will be made safe from drugs, crime and violence. But laws will be enforced against people like the Strongs, since they are easy targets for administrations which seek to build their electoral machines in cities made acceptable to the upscale young professionals who increasingly inhabit and gentrify them and overpower their politics.

Sandy Baird, sbaird@burlcol.edu

ON THE QT is online at http://www.users.cloud9.net/~drs/ontheqt

Sandy Baird served as a Democrat in the Vermont State Legislature from 1992-1996 and while doing so was a member of the Judiciary Committee. She ran as a Green Party candidate for mayor of Burlington in 1989. Ms. Baird has done radio commentary on political/social matters in Vermont since the 1970's. She won the AP Montpelier, Vermont award for best radio commentary 2 years running.

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