Lawmakers, administration to tackle perennial problem: affordable housing

When the Vermont Legislature convenes in early January, lawmakers will continue to tackle the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and begin to craft a plan for the state’s economic recovery.

The Legislature and the Scott administration will also look to build on what they did this year to make sure vulnerable Vermonters have a place to live.

In response to the first wave of Covid-19, the Scott administration and Legislature worked on an expansive $87 million housing assistance program, which included making sure that homeless Vermonters had shelter — expanding the state’s homeless hotel voucher system as well as rental and mortgage assistance.

However, with federal Covid-19 funds running out on Dec. 30, the programs that vulnerable Vermonters have relied on for the past six months — and that are seen as an extremely effective way to ensure everyone has the ability to socially distance and quarantine — will be in doubt.

“We’re kind of heading, you know, 100 miles an hour toward a cliff,” said Erhard Mahnke, coordinator of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition. “Absent additional federal relief, how is the state going to continue to help house all the folks that are homeless who are currently safe in motels and provide them with the services they need?”

Josh Hanford, commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development, said at a virtual Vermont Human Rights Commission conference on Nov. 18, that a continued priority for Gov. Phil Scott is to fund the rehabilitation of existing housing throughout the state.

The Legislature and administration agreed on a $6 million plan this year for the program, and Hanford said more can be done.

“We need to bring private owners, landlords into the fold here, increase our capacity, increase our stock, provide incentives so that they serve affordable folks in need and have this housing stock rehabilitated in serving Vermonters,” Hanford said. The administration is going to “double down once again and ask for support to do that.”

Hanford said the administration will also push to reform Act 250, the state’s land use law, to make it easier for developers to build new, affordable housing in downtown areas.

“It should be a unified approach and exempting housing in our already built environments,” he said.

The Legislature took action this year on Act 250 reform and refitting existing buildings. The Senate passed Act 250 reforms designed to reduce the cost of buying and developing land and to promote more housing in downtowns. However, the legislation got caught up in the scramble to focus on Covid-19, and then was sidetracked, and the result was only a modest change in Act 250.

Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, who chairs the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs, said he hopes to revisit that legislation in the new year.

From his perspective, the first order of business will be to review programs that were approved before the Legislature adjourned. He wants to look at how the expansion of hotel vouchers, mortgage assistance and rental assistance worked out, and how the money for retrofitting existing housing was used and if it was effective.

“Hopefully we can get beyond that and look at promoting additional policies,” Sirotkin said.

Sirotkin is interested in discussing a major housing bond for the state. That idea was debated this year, but didn’t go anywhere after Treasurer Beth Pearce made it clear she opposed the idea, arguing that borrowing the money would be too expensive.

Sirotkin wanted a $50 million housing bond in 2020 to follow up on a $37 million bond approved in 2017, which had leveraged federal and state money, tax credits and other resources to build nearly 800 units of housing in Vermont.

“I intend to raise that question again with the treasurer,” Sirotkin told VTDigger. “The cost of borrowing is so low at this point and the need for infrastructure improvements, both in housing and elsewhere, is so strong in the state of Vermont that I think we should take a closer look at that.”

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, chair of the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs, said he’s not entirely sold on another bond.

Stevens, like his counterpart in the Senate, said the first focus will be on the Covid-19 response, including transitional housing and rental assistance, to make sure that emergency programs are studied and reinforced.

After dealing with continued coronavirus relief, Stevens said his top 2021 priority will be to make sure the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust is fully funded, so it can go about creating rental housing and home ownership opportunities.

The Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund, financed by revenues from the property transfer tax, was set up to steer half its annual revenues to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which distributes state money for affordable housing and land conservation projects. 

However, the Housing and Conservation Board’s share has been raided repeatedly for other uses, leaving it underfunded. The board did receive $34 million in federal coronavirus relief money to add new housing and improve housing for the homeless.

Stevens said he would much rather fund the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust than borrow more money through a second housing bond and then having to pay interest on that loan.

“It hamstrings us a little bit more,” he said. “I think the treasurer is right to worry about our bond rating.” The better Vermont’s bond rating, the less the state has to pay in interest to borrow money. 

Stevens also thinks the pandemic has made more House members sympathetic to the issues of affordable housing and homeless, which could open up new policy avenues in the coming years. 

“I’m looking at it with my eyes wide open and with hope in my heart that people will continue understanding that housing is the foundational answer that will make a lot of the other programs that we work on better,” Stevens said.

Mahnke, a longtime housing advocate, said the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition plans to push for a statewide database of rental housing, a professional system of rental housing code enforcement, and other regulatory steps.

Mahnke also said groups will be lobbying the Legislature to adopt a “homeless Bill of Rights,” which would establish basic rights for homeless Vermonters and provide guidance to municipalities. 

He thinks the governor and Legislature recognize the importance of housing as part of the state’s response to Covid-19, which gives him reason to believe concrete steps will be taken on the issue in 2021.

“I think there’s a general consensus that housing is an absolutely critical component of the state’s response,” he said. “The governor wants everyone to stay safe, and you can’t stay safe at home if you don’t have a home.”

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