‘Every bit helps’: Lawmakers, advocates strategize on affordable housing in southeastern Vermont

Southeastern Vermont Legislators and affordable housing advocates gathered Sept. 27 to discuss barriers to affordable housing in Windsor and Windham counties.

The crisis is acute, and there’s no silver bullet.

That was the message at the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition’s southeastern Vermont Virtual Town Hall on Tuesday night. Affordable housing experts and legislators from WIndham and Windsor counties met to discuss what’s working, what’s not, and how lawmakers can collaborate with housing professionals to produce more affordable housing.

“Housing is having a moment right now, and that is overdue and well deserved,” said Maura Collins, executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

“Nothing like a crisis to make everyone pay attention,” quipped Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor. 

For some people looking for affordable housing, cost isn’t the only consideration.

“Physically accessible is a big thing: We have an aging population here in Vermont. The homeless population continues to age,” said Lee Trapeni, executive director of the Springfield Supportive Housing Program. The organization currently has 156 households on a waiting list for housing. Ninety of those are on a fixed income, and 40 have no income at all, Trapeni said.

New forms of property ownership and operation have also presented challenges for creating affordable housing opportunities.

Clarkson pointed to the popularity of short term rentals in her home of Woodstock as a serious strain on the town’s rental market. And while municipalities have the ability to regulate short term rentals — as Woodstock has — implementation can be difficult.

“You also have to put the money and the muscle behind enforcement,” she said.

Rebecca Holcombe — the former education secretary who is running to represent Norwich, Thetford, Strafford and Sharon in the Vermont House — highlighted new types of transplants to Vermont that increase demand on a too-tight market.

“We also now have what I call ‘Texas refugees,’ people who are moving here because they don't feel safe or comfortable raising their children in Texas, predominantly,” Holcombe said. She also pointed to people moving to Vermont due to climate change, along with investors who are buying up homes to hedge against losses in the stock market, as part of a new generation of people increasing competition for housing. 

“I don’t see a way out of this without denser housing,” she said.

Those investors — as well as other second- or multiple-property homeowners — often have a tax advantage not available to Vermonters. The non-homestead education property tax rates in Thetford and Woodstock are lower than the homestead rates, Holcombe noted. 

“We are rewarding people who own second homes because the carrying cost of second homes in these communities is so much lower,” she said.

While short term rentals receive more media attention, second homes play a bigger role in Vermont’s housing shortage, suggested Maura Collins, VHFA’s director. The former make up only 3% of Vermont’s housing stock, while the latter takes up 17%. 

But Tuesday night’s conversation was not all glum. 

“It’s an exciting time of opportunity with the (federal American Rescue Plan Act) funding,” said Marion Major, outreach and marketing coordinator at the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.

By next spring, the housing trust plans to finish its 27-unit mixed-income development in Bellows Falls, called the “Garage” because it is going up on the site of the old village garage. Its 30-unit Central & Main project in downtown Windsor is expected to begin construction next year. 

Major and Trapeni both praised the Vermont Housing Improvement Program as a new way of placing some of the most vulnerable Vermonters into housing. As of last week, the program — which provides grants to landlords to renovate unused rental properties and build accessory dwelling units — had brought over 300 units back onto the market, according to Josh Hanford, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development. 

According to those present, no single thing — better zoning, tiny homes, renovated apartments — could fix Vermont’s housing problem. But as Major put it, they all matter.

“I'm kind of of the mind that the housing crisis is in such a crunch that every bit helps,” she said. 

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