February 21, 2016
Because the General Assembly meets in the winter and early spring, legislators face a number of chronic issues that frame our work, especially when there is a cold snap, as there was this past weekend. One of them is homelessness. Homelessness is an uncomfortable subject because it means that a number of Vermonters are not sharing in any economic stability that others are, or it means that we, as Vermonters, have not committed to ending homelessness among the poor, elderly, or disabled. Perhaps there are military veterans who cannot find work or housing. And perhaps there are families with children who are forced to live where they can, without the stability that will help them at work and school. Whoever they are, when it gets dangerously cold, as it did this past weekend, we seek to get them off the street and into shelter so that we don’t have to report that people are freezing to death on the streets, or alleys, or in tents.
While I miss the snow this winter, I am relieved that overnight temperatures have been milder than in recent years. Last year, the state offered shelter every night from mid-November 2014 until late March 2015. We may not have seen many homeless individuals in the Waterbury area, but in Burlington, Rutland, Barre, Montpelier, Brattleboro and other towns, we spent nearly $4 million on temporary shelter, which were primarily hotel rooms or shelters. It would have been more had some folks not couch-surfed, and it would have been more still had some organizations not made investments in new temporary housing, some of which provided the necessary social services to help them get back on their feet and into permanent housing.
Some people ask why we can’t develop programs that can solve this problem. Well, we do. We know that stable housing will help formerly homeless individuals with a number of needs succeed. Housing First? There is a program run by a nonprofit called Pathways that houses people and provides access to the kind of services that will help them stay in that housing. But that organization is only authorized and funded to be in six out of our 14 counties. Champlain Housing Trust has developed Harbor Place in Shelburne, which provides transitional housing and services for individuals and families that are temporarily homeless due to economics, domestic violence or mental health, and has just opened, in partnership with the UVM Medical Center, a set of apartments in a former motel that will permanently house 19 chronically homeless disabled individuals, and provide them with the key services they will need to succeed.
These investments come with a price tag, of course, but the punchline is that the expenses to house and provide quality services to this population is approximately 40% of the expense of allowing them to stay homeless, or keeping them in the hospital or prison because there is nowhere to place them, or making them use the emergency room for basic healthcare. All of these expensive options drain our budgets. And this drain — money laid out during the crisis of the instant — prevents a fuller investment in the programs and services that will immediately save us money.
Moving up the housing ladder, it is estimated (in the most current Housing Needs Survey) that we need approximately 1,000 new units of affordable housing (for households that make less than 80% of the area median income, or, in Central Vermont, $40,000) to alleviate our current homelessness problem. This task is made difficult because HUD took away funding for nearly 900 Section 8 vouchers in 2011, and only about 150 have returned. The survey also showed that Vermont needs 29,000 units of housing that is affordable to all Vermonters, which means that the housing expense (mortgage, rent, taxes, utilities) is 30% or less of a household’s income. An increasing number of our population is paying up to 50% of their income on housing, which is clearly an unstable situation, both for the households and the state (and the services needed to support them).
Our main resource in developing new affordable housing is the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund. Administered by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the fund is statutorily required to receive 49.5% of the property transfer tax. The scheduled amount for this year is $19.5 million. But VHCB won’t receive that full amount because our statutes allow for a “notwithstanding” clause to be invoked, which means that money can be taken from the fund to be appropriated elsewhere in the budget. If this is allowed this year, $8 million will be shifted from VHCB to other programs, and $2.8 million returned through other sources.
Why is this important? Well, over the last 15 years, we have shorted this fund $40 million. Given the way VHCB helps community organizations develop housing projects, like the Stimson & Graves building, the Seminary, and the South Main Apartments*, each dollar invested means up to $10 of investment from private and public sources. By shorting VHCB $40 million, we have lost the opportunity to create over 1,000 new units of affordable housing, which, as we see above, is the amount needed to eradicate most homelessness in Vermont.
I can lament this loss, and I can lament to continued need to spend money on short-term solutions, and I can lament the lost opportunity. But instead, I will work within my committee and within the legislature to make it better, because when we take care of this population, we can then move further up the ladder and start focussing on housing young Vermonters, young families and young professionals — the folks we need in this state to keep it vibrant and prosperous. Waterbury, in particular, has been blessed with a number of good jobs, but to maintain that, we need to find a way to develop housing for them that will allow them to stay here.
*I am currently board president of Downstreet Housing and Community Development, the developer/co-owner of these properties.