White people own most of the land in the state, said Steffen Gillom, president of Windham County Vermont NAACP. Only eight farms in Vermont are fully owned by Black people, according to the American Farmland Trust.
Community leaders of color are about to ask the Legislature to establish a fund to help Black, Indigenous and people of color to buy a home, land, or a farm. Gillom has worked with Rep. Brian Cina, P-Burlington, and Kenya Lazuli, cofounder of Radical Imagination, among others, to draft the proposal.
When it comes to land, “it doesn’t matter what your racial background is, if you’re a minority, you’re not owning a lot,” Gillom said.
In a 2019 equity report, Burlington city officials found that people of color own only 4% of the homes there, though they make up 18% of the city’s population. Black Burlingtonians are four times as likely to be denied for a home loan as a white counterpart.
Cina and Gillom say this problem is rooted in systemic racism.
“The laws and policies of our state and nation severed Indigenous people from land and denied Black people and other people of color from having the opportunity to access land and to own land,” Cina said. Vermont must create opportunities for Black, Indigenous and people of color to permanently own land in every town, he said.
Cina hopes the legislation will start a “just transition to an economic system that undoes systemic racism.”
The fund would be managed by a board led by Black, Indigenous and people of color, and money would be available for down payments and for sliding-scale grants to help pay for homes, land and farms. The bill also calls for expanded financial education for new homeowners and for resources built through partnerships with racial justice organizations.
Cina said rules might have to be changed to make mortgages more accessible to people who haven’t owned a home before, and he hopes for “tax breaks for properties acquired through these programs.”
The bill proposes working with the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust and similar organizations “to ensure that at least one quality parcel of land in each town in Vermont will be held permanently in trust for BIPOC stewardship and access,” Lazuli said.
Lazuli also emphasized the importance of Vermonters and organizations ensuring the safety of the new landowners. “A lot of the time, they’re not friendly interactions,” Lazuli said.
People of color have faced discrimination and racial harassment across Vermont. Tabitha Moore recently stepped down as the Rutland NAACP president after racial harassment was directed at her and her family. Moore ultimately decided to move away from the Rutland area. Others say they’ve had similar experiences.
“We know that America was built on stolen land and stolen labor, and this act will be a model for communities and states across the nation to reconcile some of the damage and harm of the past,” said Mia Schultz, the newly elected head of the Rutland Area NAACP.
Agricultural groups such as Rural Vermont and the Northeast Organic Food Associations have voiced support of the bill, as has Justice for All, a grassroots racial justice organization.
Gillom said he started working on the initiative because he saw that lack of access to land and housing was driving people out of the state.
“I kept seeing people who were important to me who were also folks of color, especially Black people, leaving the state because they were unable to secure the housing they wanted or the land that they desired,” he said. “There are a lot of people of color who end up in the state but struggle to make it home.”
He started a series of conversations with Cina that eventually led to the bill that will be introduced in the Legislature.
“Really, that’s it. It was just Black and brown people with a vision,” Gillom said.
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on politics. And in case you can't get enough of the Statehouse, sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.