With more than 540 households slated to lose their rooms in motels across Vermont this week, Gov. Phil Scott announced a “30-day pause” Tuesday, a day after housing advocates pressed him to act.
After hearing some of their concerns, “I brought the team together this morning and said that we should have a 30-day pause to reflect on getting everyone back on the same page,” Scott said during his weekly Covid-19 press conference.
The announcement effectively serves as a 30-day extension, although Scott declined to call it that.
Scott said details are yet to be worked out but he hoped the additional time will give leaders and advocates an opportunity to “re-engage” on the issue.
The state’s general assistance housing program has used vacant motel rooms to house Vermonters who would otherwise be homeless during the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing them to shelter in motels for 84 days as they search for permanent housing.
About 700 people were forced out of the program July 1, while people with children, or with disabilities, or who were fleeing dangerous or life-threatening conditions were allowed to remain. The 84-day limit on those emergency motel stays was slated to end this Thursday, although residents can apply for 30-day extensions.
A coalition of advocates sent a letter last week to Sean Brown, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, urging him to extend the program. Vermont Legal Aid held a press conference Monday and outlined stories of clients, many with health issues, who were terrified about losing their rooms in the coming days. Many advocated for a short-term reprieve.
Brown told the joint fiscal committee on Friday that an extension is not possible because the state did not have enough motel beds available, and he couldn’t stop motel operators from renting to tourists instead of the state. He estimated that capacity would decline from about 900 rooms to about 650 in the coming weeks.
On Tuesday, Brown said the state could work with housing partners to provide services and coordinate the movement of households from areas of no or low capacity to areas with some capacity.
Asked about his plans for a solution, Scott said Tuesday, “We have to get very creative to find enough housing.”
He said the ultimate goal is permanent — not temporary — housing. A $2,500 incentive is available to those who want and can find more permanent housing and could help reduce the demand on available motel rooms, he said.
Advocates and politicians applauded Scott’s decision on Tuesday. House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said the state should monitor the situation and “further extend the deadline if we believe we need more time to create housing solutions.”
“We know that we have the funds to support this population, and it is imperative that we remain nimble and innovative in the ways we transition our most vulnerable Vermonters to permanent housing with support services,” Krowinski said in a statement.
Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, said in a statement that she was relieved to hear Scott’s decision. Short of the “pause,” vulnerable Vermonters would be heading into the woods with tents, she said.
A compromise plan negotiated months ago did not take into account the current Covid-19 surge nor a pandemic-induced housing crisis, Balint said.
“The landscape has changed, and the stakeholders and the administration all need to go back to square one and explore all avenues to keep people safely housed as we head into the colder weather,” she said.
The Scott administration must accept available federal funds to reinstate the motel program and commit to “keeping people safely and consistently housed when the time to transition from motels comes,” former gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel wrote in a statement co-signed by others, including state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden; state Reps. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex Town, John Killacky, D-South Burlington, and Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln; and Jubilee McGill of Bridport, a housing advocate and former candidate for the Vermont House.
“This time must be used to explore and find permanent solutions to the housing crisis facing our state,” Siegel wrote.
While he wants to do the best for everyone involved, Scott said he is not sure that the motel program is the right approach.
“Most everyone would agree, the Legislature certainly does, this can’t go on in perpetuity. So what happens if we go till Jan. 1 and this ends at the end of the year, what then?” he said. “We’re still going to be faced with the same situation. So we need to get on the same page; we need to agree on a goal and the path forward.”