The recent discussion of the “Vermont housing crisis” reminds us that this problem never goes away. That’s because the interests active in shaping housing policy continue to be far apart on almost any policy change that promises more affordable housing.
My first experience in this field dates back to 1972. I sponsored a House bill whose purpose was “to encourage the Vermont building industry to increase the supply of affordable housing for the average family. of Vermont by removing the barrier posed by a multiplicity of different building codes, each containing local embellishments and some deliberately used to prevent the entry of new low-income housing.”
The bill also provided for state certification of code-compliant manufactured homes and mobile homes and updated a building code law largely unchanged since 1904.
The House passed the bill on a voice vote, setting off alarm at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Some of its larger municipalities viewed a strict building code as a way to discourage the construction of new housing for young families producing children whom city ratepayers should educate. The Senate rejected the bill by 13 votes to 14.
Over the next half-century, the housing controversy played out in various forms.
Once seen as a way to avoid public nuisances and effectively accommodate the growth of roads, schools, water and sewers, zoning in developing communities has too often been re-imagined as a tool to protect residents from the perceived burden of newcomers. This leads to “I’m on board, pull the gangway” zoning that creates barriers to growth.
Development of 10 or more homes faces the test of Law 250. As I wrote two years ago, “even developers willing to meet the development criteria of Law 250 dare not exposing them, and their capital, to a predictable endless regulatory process infested with well-informed adversaries determined to thwart their every move.”
If the site is in the countryside and therefore easily buildable, environmental organizations will come forward demanding the protection of wildlife transit corridors, views of the lake for cyclists, and the protection of any artifacts of indigenous peoples (known as of “conformity archeology”). The Climate Council will oppose the building of new housing in the country as residents will have to drive to work, shop and go to school, thus releasing emissions and worsening the declared climate emergency.
But for a Scott veto (of H.606), the state would be required to “conserve” 50% of Vermont’s land area from the depredations of human occupation by 2050. Rural land is “conserved” when l state and federal government own it. , or an environmental organization or trust owns it, or you own it, but you can’t build housing or, in fact, do anything with it except pay taxes on it.
There are many tax advantages for creating housing in neighborhood centers, but with this opportunity comes compliance issues. Converting disused college dormitories and building on vacant state land would offer some progress. So would community land trusts, which stabilize land values in exchange for limiting future sales of improvements.
Then there is the particular problem of Vermont’s 2,780 homeless people, on whom the state has spent $455 million over the past six years. The Emergency Housing Assistance Program and other federal grants create little or no needed housing. They simply give money to qualified people to occupy housing that they would not otherwise be able to afford.
Let’s give Burlington credit for doing their best. Last month, the mayor announced the installation of 25 small housing units for the homeless, but as the auditor’s office sadly observed in a recent report, “Vermont is not building its solution to the problem “.
There is no bold solution to this persistent problem with its conflicting interests. Giving the Vermont Public Housing Authority the unstoppable power to create and fund public housing throughout the state is an idea that even the most enthusiastic advocate of expanding government power would stop short of adopting. Rent control, a chronic favorite of progressives, is clearly destructive to increasing the supply of rental housing.
The opposite policy, which reduces the reach of regulators who can impose onerous conditions and mandatory cross-subsidies, is a step in the right direction. Such a move, of course, will meet strong resistance from interests that insist on installing heating systems that don’t use gas and oil, and from those that really don’t want a lot of new housing.
If Vermont doesn’t go down this road, decent new housing will increasingly be available only to the custom-built wealthy and increasingly subsidized families who used to and should be able to pay their own way.