Advocates are backing a hotel occupancy fee to help the state tackle homelessness and affordable housing issues.
In the Pathways from Poverty Council’s annual report to the governor, delivered Thursday, advocates recommended imposing a $2 per night fee on hotel rooms that would go to supporting efforts to reduce homelessness.
The report highlighted affordable housing as “key to the well-being of Vermonters.” It was one of the four major focuses for the 30-member council’s report, along with education, administrative systems and economic security.
The council proposes that the state curb the housing affordability crisis by making new investments in permanent low-cost housing, providing more rental assistance and increasing supportive services.
“One of the challenges for advocates historically has been pointing out where there are problems and not always coming up with a funding solutions,” Chris Curtis, co-chair of the council, said Thursday.
The state has “an affordable housing crisis on its hands,” Curtis said, and the fee could make a big difference for the state in addressing that, including by moving away from the emergency housing motel voucher program.
Meanwhile, the fee would largely be shouldered by tourists, and is “less than the cost of a cup of coffee at many of these establishments,” he said.
Pathways member Erhard Mahnke, of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, emphasized the report’s call for investment in constructing affordable housing. The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board has been underfunded in recent years, and “the chickens are coming home to roost,” he said. “We have a protracted affordable housing crisis.”
Linda Ryan, co-chair council and executive director of Samaritan House, a shelter in St. Albans, said Thursday that funding is critical to efforts to end family homelessness, and other major anti-poverty goals of the administration.
“We’re not going to do that unless we can raise some revenue,” she said.
Housing affordability is a major barrier to low-income Vermonters, she said. “As everyone knows, the wages are low and the rents are high,” Ryan said.
The proposal riffs on two bills introduced during the first half of the legislative biennium, both of which would use the hotel room fee to fund higher education.
A Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, would put half the money raised toward the Vermont Higher Education Endowment Trust Fund, and the other half toward the state colleges.
A similar bill, from Rep. Susan Hatch Davis, P-West Topsham, would have put half of the revenue from the fee to the same higher education initiatives, but put the other half to fund low-income weatherization.
The nonpartisan legislative Joint Fiscal Office projected that the occupancy fee would raise $12 million annually. However, neither bill made it past committee.
The proposal to use a $2 occupancy fee to counter homelessness is gaining support from groups that are not solely focused on housing.
Thursday morning, advocates from the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence encouraged members of the poverty council to consider that proposal to fund housing assistance.
“We need to start talking about revenue,” Watersong, a member of the Pathways From Poverty Council, said after the meeting.
Low vacancy rates and high rents can make it very difficult for victims who are parents to move away from their abuser while keeping their children enrolled in the same school, according to Gilan Merwanji of the network.
“Too often a victim is forced to make the untenable choice between violence or homelessness,” Merwanji told the committee.
Meanwhile, the length of time that victims stay in shelters associated with the network is increasing, as many families struggle to find an affordable place to live.
Already, the shelters are operating at capacity, Merwanji said.
Some 7,251 adults and 1,348 children were sheltered in the nine emergency shelters associated with the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence in 2014.
The flow of Vermonters to emergency shelters for sexual and domestic violence victims was so significant in 2014 that the Network couldn’t meet the need, turning away 346 people. Those people would then get support from the state, likely through the emergency housing assistance motel vouchers.
It was not the first time that the Vermont Child Poverty Council heard about lack of housing as a critical issue in the state, Rep. Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, chair of the council, said Thursday.
“The theme around housing really being the basis is, I think, really starting to show through for us,” Krowinski said.
Krowinski said that the occupancy fee is “an interesting proposal to put on the table.” The council will also be looking at other ways to fund initiatives related to homelessness and children, such as maximizing federal funds.
Recommendations in the Pathways from Poverty report
Curtis acknowledged that many initiatives spearheaded by the Shumlin administration have made real strides in supporting low-income households in Vermont.
However, he said, there is still work to be done.
“What the report shows, year in and year out, is that while we’ve made some progress in some areas, we have a very long way to go before we solve the problems of poverty in Vermont,” Curtis said.
The 23-page report includes dozens of recommendations pertaining to policy initiatives and investments in new or existing programs. Recommendations include:
• establish a statewide driver restoration program;
• pass “ban the box” legislation that would forbid private sector employers from asking about criminal convictions on the first round of job applications;
• finding a revenue stream that would support Medicaid and close the budget gap;
• carry out a comprehensive study on transportation barriers for elders, people with disabilities and low-income Vermonters.