Business & Economy

Housing advocates say Scott’s priorities address unmet needs

Construction underway on new homes at the Hillside at O’Brien Farm development in South Burlington on Monday, June 22, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Gov. Phil Scott’s first Covid-era budget proposals for housing were met with measured optimism by advocates who have long sought more state money for capital investment in homes. 

The state’s finances are in better shape now than policymakers had expected, thanks to an unexpected boost in tax revenue caused in large part by the infusion of federal CARES Act money last year.

Accordingly, Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday was able to announce an array of sizable one-time expenditures for housing and other projects as he outlined policy priorities for the state’s $6.8 billion budget for the coming fiscal year. Many housing advocates were pleased to see the proposals, but said the ideas would be tested in the coming months of the legislative session. 

‘An amazing start’

Weatherization has been a perennial topic of housing-related conversation in the Statehouse in recent years, as advocates have sought money to make properties more energy efficient and more habitable. Scott said Tuesday he’d like to spend $20 million in the coming year to accelerate weatherization for low- and moderate-income families through the Vermont Housing Finance Agency. The agency said added private funding would increase the impact of the program.

“This is an amazing start,” said Maura Collins, the director of the housing finance agency.

“It’s not going to solve the state’s weatherization programs, but this is an incredible investment in the state, and it’s going to go a long way toward making a dent in what’s needed.”

This year, Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, has proposed that the state spend $1.3 billion over a decade to weatherize 120,000 homes. Though the governor’s plan is less ambitious, Bray said he was not disappointed to hear it.

“In general, I am very happy that the governor is finding funding for weatherization,” the senator said. “He’s providing funding to help us pick up the pace in an area where there is a dramatic opportunity for Vermont to do much better.”

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Bray said he plans to look for more money for weatherization.

“What is the cost of not doing anything?” he asked. “In the end, it’s even greater.”

‘Really excellent news’

Last week, Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, said he planned to propose a $27 million to $50 million bond to finance construction of new housing. A similar bond that the Legislature approved in 2017 has helped build 800 units, according to advocates.

On Tuesday, Scott proposed an alternative to borrowing. His plan would direct $20 million to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to more homes, plus $1 million “to help families purchase and rehabilitate homes in communities that need investment the most.”

The housing and conservation board administered the 2017 bond. The prospect of another $20 million is “really excellent news,” said Gus Seelig, the board’s executive director. He said it’s too early to speculate how the money would be used, “but building new housing will be a big part of what we do.”

Sirotkin said late Tuesday that he wasn’t disturbed to hear the governor endorse a one-time payment to VHCB over bonding. 

“I would like to explore that a little bit further,” said Sirotkin, chair of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs. “I am very supportive of the money he has proposed for VHCB. That will build a significant amount of housing.”

Sirotkin said he hadn’t been surprised at the state’s rosy revenue projections. 

“I think we expected it when we saw the $1.25 billion” that flowed to Vermont as the state’s share of the $2 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress in March. 

‘We all need to do a better job’

Another piece of the puzzle is the Vermont Housing Investment Program, created last year with CARES Act federal money. It helps landlords rehabilitate apartments to make them habitable. Scott said he hopes to put $2 million toward that program.

Scott said he would like to use some of the money to help make Vermont’s housing opportunities more available to all — including homeowners who are minorities. He said that fits in with the administration’s stated goal of making the state at large more ethnically diverse.

Seelig said the Vermont Housing Conservation Board has already begun examining the systemic issues that make it more difficult for minorities to become homeowners.

“Everybody, I think, is being challenged across Vermont to say, ‘What are the systemic issues that hold back people of color, hold back low-income people from realizing all the full rights of citizenship and opportunities?’” he said.

Seelig said the housing board wants to work more closely with groups that aid refugees and other new arrivals. 

“We all need to do a better job of reaching out to those communities,” he said.

‘We need more taxpayers’

Scott is looking for a way to continue building the state’s population, which has dwindled in recent years. The 2018 remote worker program, which has now expired, and a later iteration, the new worker program, helped recruit 550 people to Vermont over the last two years, Scott said. Both programs reimbursed qualifying new Vermonters for some of their moving expenses.

Scott said the new residents were making $25 million annually, delivering about $3 million in tax revenue. With an initial investment of $1 million, he said, “that’s a 300% return.” He’d like to put another $500,000 toward those programs, which are administered by the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

Sirotkin wasn’t surprised that the administration wants to spend more money on the program. The governor is a longtime supporter. 

“We need more taxpayers,” he said. “He made a case that in terms of the revenue it brought in, the return on investment is very worthwhile.”

‘Historic amount of money’

Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the state Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, was ultimately unsuccessful last year in drawing coronavirus relief money to a program that would help expand meat processing capability in Vermont. The state’s slaughterhouses have been booked up for months in advance — and in some cases into 2022 — and two more are expected to be completed in the state this year.  

Tebbetts’ work paid off in 2021 as the governor proposed $3 million for farmers, agricultural producers, markets and co-ops through the state’s Working Lands grants program. The grants program normally has a budget of about $600,000, Tebbetts said Tuesday.

“This historic amount of money for working lands is really important; it could change people’s lives because of the infrastructure improvements they can make to their businesses,” he said. The secretary said equipment purchases aided by the grants program could increase output at some of the state’s slaughterhouses by 30% to 40%.

Vermont meat growers faced a lack of slaughterhouse capacity before the pandemic, but the problem intensified as more and more people started looking for local meat last spring.

“The ag money is not helping just for today,” Tebbetts said. “These infrastructure improvements we’re making now will be with us for years to come.”

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Anne Wallace Allen

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