Sosin, O’Reilly & Griffin: Housing is a public health crisis in Vermont

This commentary is by Anne N. Sosin, a policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College; Mairead O’Reilly, a medical legal partnership attorney at Vermont Legal Aid; and Maryellen Griffin, a housing attorney at Vermont Legal Aid.

When pandemic stay-at-home orders went into effect, Vermont’s leadership employed sweeping housing protections that provided motel rooms for the state’s homeless population and an eviction moratorium to enable all Vermonters to shelter safely.

Public health experts have lauded Vermont for keeping high-risk Vermonters safely sheltered, and study after study has shown that housing protections can reduce Covid-19 cases in vulnerable populations, help to control transmission within the broader community, and play an important role in addressing other non-COVID public health challenges

While the threat of Covid-19 is receding in Vermont, the housing emergency is not. The pandemic exacerbated Vermont’s housing affordability crisis to the point that it is now impacting middle-class Vermonters. The drastic reduction in the capacity of the motel voucher program coincides with the expiration of the eviction moratorium at a time when many tenants have not yet received their federal rental assistance and when the vacancy rate is excruciatingly low. 

Without significant and immediate intervention, many of Vermont’s lowest-income residents will become homeless. Vermont risks creating a new public health crisis as it exits the Covid-19 state of emergency.

The role that housing protections played in the pandemic may have been invisible and underappreciated by many of us who had stable housing. But the impacts of this coming crisis will be felt across our communities. Some towns are building campgrounds for Vermonters and others anticipate the arrival of campers in downtowns, trails, and other community spaces. 

Our civil courts will soon start processing eviction cases, many of which could have been prevented with the $352 million in federal rental assistance money Vermont received. Local prosecutors are starting to worry that their offices will be inundated with criminal charges resulting from the mass displacement from the motels. Emergency care and hospitalization of this population will likely increase at significant cost to our state. 

Lesson 1: Treat the housing emergency like an emergency

Gov. Scott declared a state of emergency to respond to the threat that Covid-19 posed to our state. We need to respond with similar urgency to the lack of housing for large numbers of Vermonters. Motel housing is not the long-term solution to Vermont’s critical shortage of stable housing and supportive services. Housing is. But the next step is to provide a bridge rather than a cliff. 

Displacing people from motels in the absence of better housing options unravels the tenuous gains we have made during the pandemic and punishes vulnerable residents for our longstanding policy failures to develop sufficient affordable housing. Many state leaders cite costs as a reason for reducing temporary reliance on motels; however, the long-term costs associated with homelessness are well-documented

We need leadership at the state level to enact emergency measures to keep Vermonters safely sheltered and to relieve pressure on our local communities until permanent housing becomes available. In the short term, Vermont should delay the implementation of the rules that will leave upwards of 700  Vermonters homeless at the end of June. Vermont should delay evictions, at least evictions for no reason or for nonpayment of rent, where the money owed could be paid with federal rental assistance funds.

Lesson 2: Mobilize a statewide response 

Gov. Scott has often said that it is “in our hands and we all have a role to play” in responding to the pandemic. He persuaded Vermonters to change patterns to protect our neighbors and communities. 

We need the same model of leadership to create a vision of a Vermont where everyone has a home, and to generate the political will and community-based solutions to get there.

The money is there. The Legislature says it anticipates spending $250 million on housing over the next three years — about triple what it had been spending. The governor has characterized his housing budget as “the greatest investment in housing in the history of Vermont.” And there is widespread, bipartisan acknowledgement  of the problem at all levels of government.

Turning these unprecedented resources into stable housing for all Vermonters will require state leaders to set aside — as they did during the pandemic — the business-as-usual mentality and remove the barriers to developing affordable housing. At the same time, leaders from other sectors, including the business and environmental communities, must see the imperative to address this crisis and come together to develop solutions. Vermont cannot make progress on its ambitious plans for growth in absence of housing for all. 

Lesson 3: Center equity in the response 

Prioritizing the housing needs of Vermont’s most vulnerable populations during the pandemic mitigated the disparities seen in other states and saved health care resources. Investing in people left behind in our current system is the only way to relieve our present housing emergency and save state resources.

Black, Indigenous and people of color households in Vermont fare worse than white households according to almost every housing metric. The state has a chronic and growing shortage of adequate housing for people with disabilities complex housing challenges, including the disabled, frail elders, people exiting the corrections system, survivors of domestic violence, households with children, people with severe mental illness and substance use disorder, residents of mobile home parks, and migrant and farm workers. 

The current lack of housing for Vermonters is a crisis of affordable housing, not of unhousable Vermonters. We know that we can successfully house the vast majority of unhoused people — including those with significant health care use, severe mental illness, and encounters with the criminal justice system — in permanent supportive housing with adequate services. Ensuring the location of adequate housing options across all regions of the state and in proximity to health care, schools and other community services is essential. 

Homelessness is a policy choice. Vermont should reject it. 

The pandemic has taught us that homelessness is a policy choice. Visionary policy choices helped us to lead in responding to the pandemic and to shelter our state’s homeless population. Our policy choices now will determine whether we offer a blueprint for ensuring housing for all or create a new public health emergency. 

We must seize this opportunity to build a system that provides safe, stable and fair housing for all Vermonters.

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