ST. JOHNSBURY — The town sent a notice earlier this month to the owner of the Fairbanks Inn, claiming the motel was in violation of zoning rules by housing guests long-term through the state’s voucher program.
“Fairbanks Inn may not continue to use the building as transitional housing, long-term dwelling units or any other uses other than a motel/hotel without the approval of the Development Review Board,” noted Zoning Administrator Paul Berlejung in a letter dated July 1 to Dhruv Patel, owner of Fairbanks Inn.
The emergence of the COVID 19 pandemic in 2020 created a need to find shelter for otherwise homeless people. A motel voucher program that had been used in a limited became the solution, and it was greatly expanded.
In the Northeast Kingdom, four motels were utilized extensively by the Department of Children and Families to house people: the Fairbanks Inn in St. Johnsbury, the Colonnade Inn in Lyndonville, Maurice’s in Canaan, and the Pinecrest Motel & Cabins in Barton.
When the prevalence of the virus waned and program funding access diminished, the state made some changes, but the use of the motels by DCF in its search for housing options remains.
Its continuance at the Fairbanks Inn has town officials concerned.
Berlejung’s letter to Patel states that he had received a complaint that the rooms were being rented out as transitional housing or long-term dwelling units.
For other officials, like Town Manager Chad Whitehead and Police Chief Tim Page, the concern has to do with an increased reliance on town resources - in particular public safety.
A report was generated at Whitehead’s request to gauge how response by police, fire and EMS departments to the Fairbanks has changed since it became a location to shelter people without housing.
In 2019, the year before the pandemic, between January and June there were a total of 28 responses made for Fairbanks-related issues by CALEX, the St. Johnsbury Fire Department and the police department. In the current year, for the months of January through June, the Fairbanks-related calls totaled 111. The greatest number of responses this year has come from the police department; they’ve dealt with a Fairbanks guest issue 64 times. In January through June 2019, the police department made just 17 responses to the motel.
The level of response related to people staying at the Fairbanks varies; most are minor issues. Earlier this week, a guest destroyed property after getting upset that his room phone wasn’t working and he couldn’t call out for a pizza.
Some incidents are more serious. A month ago, two people connected to a drug-related shooting in another part of town earlier this year were found staying together in a Fairbanks room in violation of a court order. Back in December DCF located a man at the motel who went on a car vandalism spree along village streets.
On Wednesday, Whitehead and Chief Page met with DCF officials to discuss concerns.
DCF officials developed a Transitional Housing Program with implementation beginning in May. It is designed to provide long-term housing in hotels. It is funded through the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
Under the program, people in the program enter into an occupancy agreement with a hotel. Room payments are made monthly. The program provides a security deposit of up to $3,300 per room. There’s also a provision that states the program will an additional $3,300 to a motel willing to house someone identified as “Hard to House.” Reasons why they’re hard to house include being placed on “Do Not Rent” lists or they’ve been off a previous occupancy agreement.
At the meeting on Wednesday, Whitehead said the DCF officials told him and the chief that no “Hard to House” people have been located at the Fairbanks. But they didn’t say they wouldn’t, Whitehead said.
He said the officials listened to the concerns he and the chief expressed. “They heard us. They listened, but they don’t intend to change their program,” Whitehead said.
There’s no denying that there is a housing problem, Whitehead said.
“The town of St. Johnsbury is not unsympathetic to the need,” said Whitehead. “We’re not opposed to developing a long-term solution (to finding shelter for homeless people).”
Utilizing the Fairbanks to the level it’s being used for the Transitional Housing Program is not a solution the town is OK with, he said. “They’ve seemed to veer away from what was really a hotel,” said Whitehead.
“Our biggest concern is that decision was made without consideration of the need for our resources,” he said.
As far as the town’s zoning challenge for how the motel is being operated, the Fairbanks owner disagrees with the town’s assertion. Through attorney David Dunn, Patel has appealed the zoning determination.
“Malav, Inc. (owner of Fairbanks) is not running permanent transitional housing or renting out long term dwelling units,” he wrote. “The Fairbanks in[sic] is running a hotel consistent with all applicable laws and regulations, and is participating in the statewide ESD General/Emergency Assistance program describe in the enclosed. The Fairbanks Inn is not rooms or apartments on a long term basis.”
He referenced a statement from DCF Commissioner Sean Brown that he believes specifies the legality of the Fairbanks Inn and the Transitional Housing Program.
“In 2015 and 2022, the Vermont Law regarding Residential Rental Agreements was updated to include an exclusion for occupants of hotels, motels, and other lodging establishments when the occupant is either: (1)a recipient of General Assistance or Emergency Assistance for temporary housing; or(2) a recipient of federal Emergency Rental Assistance administered by the Department for Children and Families (DCF).”