Small Scale a Priority in Workforce Housing Bill

With thousands of vacant jobs in Vermont and a critical lack of affordable housing, our ability to attract workers to fill crucial positions is severely restricted.

And Vermonters who have jobs often have long and expensive commutes because they can’t find a place to live that’s closer to work. Directly or indirectly, the housing shortage affects everyone.

The quickest and least expensive way to get more rural housing is to create additional units on properties and within existing structures that already are hooked up to town water and public sewers.

This approach also minimizes the effect development has on the historic settlement patterns of our villages and town centers, helping to keep Vermont looking like Vermont.

I have co-sponsored a workforce housing bill that emphasizes smaller developments in smaller towns. It prioritizes the retrofitting, weatherization and rehabilitation of existing properties and focuses on development where it already exists, in our downtowns.

That makes sense to me. I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t want to see the revitalization of our existing neighborhoods come before the development of open countryside.

The bill appropriates $56 million to be spent over the next two years, providing for grants, loans, subsidies and appropriate administrative costs. The legislation funds many existing programs, but the important shift for our district is that some of the guidelines are geared to ensure that smaller towns and rural areas finally get their share towards creating or upgrading rental housing.

The grant also keeps the state’s investment working for Vermonters into the future, requires landlords to rent new or rehabbed unit at or below fair market rent as established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for a minimum of 10 years.  The unit also cannot be used as a short term rental.

A small but important portion of the money would go to hiring what the bill calls “housing resource navigators” who would work with small municipalities, local housing organizations, and private developers to identify housing opportunities, match communities with funding resources, and provide project management support.

Also included are two pilot programs for middle income households.  One program helps homeowners purchase, construct or substantially renovate their residence while mandating that the home remain affordable for future buyers. The second pilot program is a loan fund for middle-income rental projects that create two or more units.

There is an economy of scale for developers of new housing projects that makes large developments more feasible than small ones, but they often run into understandable neighborhood resistance and permitting challenges as they inevitably seek to change the nature of their immediate environment.

Allowing and enabling individual homeowners and small landlords to become their own developers of an additional unit or two in an existing structure is a much more expedient small-town approach.

Towns in my legislative district have already removed one roadblock by allowing the creation of duplexes with an administrative permit, meaning you do not have to go through a hearing to create one additional unit in your home. This is important because it allows for a rental unit to be created that can be virtually invisible from the exterior of the residence.  Cumulatively such enhancements could add a significant number of affordable units to our existing housing stock while maintaining the traditional nature of our towns.

There are many ambitious development approaches for our larger communities, such as the tax increment financing (TIF) programs that have made a difference in Burlington and other municipalities. I want to champion small-scale approaches to economic and housing issues that make solutions accessible to rural towns that don’t necessarily want large developments.

I know that there will be changes to these proposals as they work their way through the legislative process, but one thing is clear. I think all legislators recognize that our shortage of worker housing is significant and that there is no one single solution to the problem. It’s going to require a multi-faceted approach, and I want to make sure that the particular needs of rural Vermont are addressed — as they are in this workforce housing bill.

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