Shayne Spence: With knowledge and ARPA money, it’s time to fix housing

This commentary is by Shayne Spence of Johnson, who was a Republican candidate for the Vermont House in 2020, and is a member of the Johnson Planning Commission.

Lately, housing is an issue that seems to be at the top of everyone’s agenda. And why shouldn’t it be? Whether you are a low-income renter seeking decent digs at an affordable price, someone looking to buy their first home, or a retiree searching for a place to live out their glory days, we all need somewhere to lay our heads at night. 

Unfortunately, these days a suitable living situation can be hard to come by. Especially in rural Vermont, demand for affordable housing often outstrips supply by a long shot, and as existing housing stock ages beyond its useful lifespan and flood zones grow, this problem only gets worse as time passes. 

As a young person trying to make it work in Vermont, this greatly concerns me, as I look around and see very few realistic housing options available to those of my generation who wish to climb up the property ladder. For too long, people of my generation have looked around and wondered, “Where am I supposed to live?” And too often, the answer to that question is something along the lines of “Just move out of state until you have enough money to move back later in life.” 

I don’t have to tell anyone trying to find workers right now what kind of problems that mentality creates. This is a problem we need to address, not just ignore and hope it goes away.

So the obvious questions are, what is causing this housing shortage, and how do we address this problem? 

These questions have complex answers, but luckily for us, many efforts have been made to provide answers on both fronts. One such effort is the 2018 Lamoille Housing Partnership/Lamoille County Planning Commission Housing Study and Needs Assessment. This study quantified Lamoille County’s existing housing stock, while also exploring the type of housing needed in our area of the state. The data provided by this study is a gold mine of good information on housing, and those interested can read more here

So what were the challenges identified by this study? There were many, but the headliners were familiar to many of us involved in this conversation: a restrictive and onerous permitting process, prohibitively high development costs, exclusionary zoning practices, and a low availability of government support for development. 

All of these challenges are issues of a restricted supply, and they manifest in a multitude of ways. 

First and foremost of these is higher housing costs. In my town of Johnson, this translates to homeowners paying 38% of their household income on housing costs, and for renters, this number is 56% of their household income. In addition, Lamoille County’s rental vacancy rate is just 1.8%, giving us the unfortunate distinction of being one of the worst places in the nation to find a new rental unit. 

For those low-income enough to qualify for subsidized housing, the waitlist for such units can be years long in some cases. I don’t know about you, but if I was told that I might have to wait several years to find an affordable apartment, I’d find a different place to live. And given how slowly Lamoille County’s population is growing, it seems that’s exactly what they’re doing.

It’s easy to point out all of the problems that exist, but much harder to identify solutions. Lucky for us once again, the same study seeks to address this side of the coin as well. And once again, many of these solutions will sound familiar to those of us who have been paying attention to this issue. 

It proposes modifications to Act 250 and local zoning ordinances that may be preventing the construction and updating of affordable units, incentivizing or mandating updates to substandard rental units, supports to both landlords and tenants to reduce evictions, and ensuring new housing is developed in town and village centers, close to other necessary services. 

The key takeaway is that we need to seriously increase the supply of housing in our region — anything else is window dressing. 

As mentioned above, serious reforms to Act 250 and other permitting processes are an important part of making this happen. And with towns across Lamoille County getting an infusion of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, now is a time we can act in a meaningful way to address this crisis. Towns should use these funds to establish programs to encourage people to fix up aging housing stock, identify places for future development, and help homeowners and renters alike bring down their housing costs. 

Organizations like Lamoille Housing Partnership and the Lamoille County Planning Commission have done much of the groundwork needed on this front, and now is the time to put our money to work.


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