Commentary

20 activists call for housing action in Orleans, northern Essex counties

This letter has been sent to state legislators and the community.

Orleans and northern Essex counties have a good deal of community strength and collaborative values, and we worked hard to make it through the pandemic in relatively safe shape. We demonstrated our collaborative strengths and the kindness of our citizenry over and over. 

This stressful year, which called upon all of our resiliency, brought local concerns into sharp focus: Housing tops that list.

Conditions are newly discouraging. The vacancy rate in Orleans/northern Essex hovers around 1-2%. Multifamily homes are being snapped up by out-of-region landlords who then raise rents. Units become out of reach for families already strained to make payments, which forces them to relocate away from their natural and social supports — including their children’s schools, family medical providers, and child care. 

These losses and transitions have a significantly detrimental effect on the health and educational outcomes of children in particular, who made up approximately one-third of the total number of homeless individuals here in the last year. (Housing is a health issue.) The regional housing picture was troubled to begin with, and greatly exacerbated by a crisis upon a crisis. 

In Orleans/northern Essex counties, community meetings to address the needs of precariously housed and unhoused individuals and families have taken on a surreal and distressing atmosphere. Financial support is flowing to the state, but we are stuck in the chronic emergency of our critically low housing capacity as the eviction moratorium ends, and people housed in hotels leave to re-enter the market. We kept community members safe throughout the worst of Covid, but are now facing its related consequences.

These patched efforts to mitigate the new-wave housing crisis are unparalleled in our collective experience, and something none of us is proud to participate in. We must do better as a community, and have the opportunity to do so if local legislators, citizens and private partners are willing to join us. Our communities are working at a highly collaborative level. We are ready to take on this housing issue in a productive way for our families, individuals, and children. 

There is exciting potential for funding that could end homelessness for many in the form of Gov. Scott’s budget for new and renovated housing. The housing needs of Orleans and northern Essex county are not the same as those in the rest of the state (we lack transportation infrastructures, have fewer social supports such as shelters, and have social challenges out of proportion to our population). 

Lumping the tri-county area together as “the Northeast Kingdom” has too often resulted in less concentration of attention in Orleans and northern Essex county. We ask our legislators to ensure that our needs are known and addressed by those empowered to distribute funding.

At minimum, we need to:

  1. Increase voucher amounts and Reach-Up housing grants that reflect the true cost of rental housing. Increase the number of Section 8 vouchers to private landlords and work to decrease stigma.
  2. Create units to house at least 70 people of various family permutations, spread across the northern corridor commute and transportation routes from Island Pond to Troy.
  3. Create at least 30 new units of case-managed housing for the greater Newport area.
  4. Reconsider zoning policies that push professional services off “Main Street” and into former private housing. More assertively incentivize elevator installation in “Main Street” buildings to make upper stories more useful. 
  5. Eliminate the cap on density. 
  6. Collaborate with private landlords to build new units and raise the standard voucher payment. 
  7. Incentivize for private landlords who pay their full real estate taxes. 

In short term, to support unhoused individuals and families though the post-Covid transition, we must unlock state Economic Services General Assistance funds to support campground sites and hotel stays. This is absolutely necessary considering that, with no housing available, local community partner agencies have provided tents, tarps, sleeping bags, phones and first-aid kits to those experiencing homelessness. 

But is this how we really want to meet our community’s housing needs?

It is past time to put plans into action for increased decent, affordable housing in Orleans and northern Essex counties. This is a community responsibility, and we need legislators, municipal leaders, housing experts, private landlords, and concerned citizens to step forward with ideas, partnership and a raised voice. Together we can pull this effort forward. 

Samantha Stevens, equity and community outreach coordinator, North Country Supervisory Union

Barbara Morrow, executive director, Orleans County Restorative Justice Center

Roxie Rivard, director of advocacy, Umbrella

MaryEllen Griffith, Vermont Legal Aid, NEK

Amanda Cochrane, executive director, Umbrella

Jenna O’Farrell, executive director, Northeast Kingdom Community Action

Rev. Alyssa May, pastor, Orleans Federated Church 

Michelle Faust, executive director, NEK Learning Services, Inc.

Patrick Shattuck, executive director, Rural Edge

Tim Daley, president, Joshua House 

Paul Bengtson, interim CEO, Northeast Kingdom Human Services

Doug Spates, Memphremagog Rentals 

Nick D’Agostino, Rural Community Transportation 

Katie Haley, regional manager, Veterans Inc.

Rev. Dr. Ed Sunday-Winters, Greensboro United Church of Christ

Lila Bennett, executive director, Journey to Recovery Community Center

Lucy Lemay, director of care and support services, NEK Council on Aging

Megan Marquissee, VT Blueprint for Health program manager, North Country Hospital

Carmina Garciadealba, eastern VT outreach specialist, Vermont 211

Rev. James Merriam, United Church of Newport


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