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January 17, 2012

"Occupy Central Vermont" Targets Montpelier Landlord Jeff Jacobs — With Art

Occupy_cafeFew people in Montpelier — outside the realms of politics, media and state government — rise in popularity/notoriety to the level of becoming household names. Capital City landlord Jeff Jacobs is one of the few exceptions. Even those who've never rented one of Jacobs' apartments or leased one of his many downtown commercial spaces have likely heard his name. Jacobs' reputation definitely precedes him.

Ever heard of the guy who tried to put a McDonald’s in a historic downtown building with plans to outfit it with a three-story fryer vent? That was Jacobs. The 67-year-old recluse — well, reclusive from Vermonters, anyway — was also the man who tried to sell the city of Montpelier the airspace over the north branch of the Winooski River for $495,000. Seven Days profiled Jacobs, one of the largest private landlords in Montpelier, in this March 9, 2011 cover story, "Capital Capitalist: Meet Jeff Jacobs, Montpelier's most notorious landlord." 

Plenty of Montpelier-area artists also know Jacobs' name, and more than a few blame him for last year's demise of the much-beloved Langdon Street Café, a popular community meeting space and artists' enclave, which was housed in a Jacobs' building. And, though few would dispute that his properties are well-maintained — some even meticulously restored to museum-like standards — many of his downtown retail spaces have remained unoccupied for months, sometimes even years.

In response, Montpelier artists have begun hanging local artwork over Jacobs' vacant store windows (see photo), in an effort to both beautify the space and protest what they say is the landlord's hostile business practices.

According to Josh Schlossberg, who's been involved with "Occupy Central Vermont" — by its very nature, the Occupy movement doesn't appoint "official" spokespeople — Occupy Central Vermont's general assembly has not officially endorsed the artwork but has "consensed" on dealing with the general issue of Jacobs' empty buildings in downtown.

"The action was to call attention to the half a dozen vacant commercial buildings in downtown Montpelier that are owned by Jeff Jacobs," writes Schlossberg, in an email. "Jacobs' practices — high rents, 30+ page rental agreements, etc. — make it so local businesses have a hard time renting from him... which negatively impacts our local economy at a time where we need a thriving downtown."

Jacobs' "absentee landlordism," Schlossberg adds, "flies in the face of our movement for a local sustainable Vermont economy advocated for by pretty much every single entity in the state. The art shows one example of a local sustainable businesses that could be there — Occupy Cafe, providing services, living-wage jobs, keeping money in the community, and holding community space — if Jacobs were to change his practices."

F-capitalcapitalistTechnically, Jacobs' real estate firm, Montpelier Property Management, is a local business; it's located in a second-floor office at 70 Main Street, which he also owns. That said, the 67-year-old landlord doesn't spend much time in Montpelier anymore. Most of his properties are now managed by his son, Jesse, who didn't return a phone call as of this posting. It's unclear whether the folks at MPM approved of the makeshift window coverings or have an opinion about them.

As for attacks leveled on Jacobs for being Montpelier's own "1 percenter," critics can only guess at his annual income and net worth. The New York Times has estimated that in order to qualify for the elite 1 percenter club and all the perks it entails — bonus frequent flyer miles, use of the executive washroom, free glasses of champagne to spit at the unwashed masses below — one must have a household income of at least $380,000. In Vermont, that figure is $321,387. Measured by net worth, however, the 1 percent threshold is nearly $8.4 million. Hard to say exactly what Jacobs' dozen or so downtown Montpelier properties are worth, especially in today's market, without a thorough market analysis.

Interestingly, despite the high visibility of his real estate holdings, Jacobs himself is no Donald Trump; he is very protective of his privacy and, ironically, his anonymity. When he’s not in Florida, he lives in Mexico and comes to Vermont for just six months of the year. And, though Jacobs and I spoke for nearly a half-hour prior to the publication of last year's cover story, he refused to grant permission for any of the interview to be used in print. What a shame, actually, because Jacobs had plenty of sharp words for his critics and Montpelier in general. 

Storefront photo courtesy of Anthony Pagani. Window art by Donna Sawyer of Wing Studio. File caricature of Jeff Jacobs by Marc Nadel.

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