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Affordable housing key element to Vermont pandemic relief plan

Updated: Jun. 3, 2021 at 4:55 PM EDT
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ESSEX, Vt. (WCAX) - Diversifying the state’s demographics, a longstanding goal of Vermont officials, is closely tied with the state’s ability to renovate and build affordable housing. And state leaders have high hopes that new federal relief funding will help the state address the longstanding problem

Chris West and his two-man crew are revamping a historic Essex farmhouse from the 1840s. Rehabbing homes like this is one of many efforts to expand the state’s housing stock. “It’s the workforce housing, the public housseing that we should be focusing on,” West said.

Developers say the need for single-family homes with two or three bedrooms is immense, a longstanding problem that was exacerbated by the pandemic.

“We are seeing people who are getting priced out of the market. A lot of the people we are working with are not able to compete,” said Julie Curtin with Downstreet Housing & Community Development, a central Vermont nonprofit that focuses on affordable housing projects.

Vermont leaders are hopeful the state can use federal cash to alleviate the problem. A $190 million housing bill sitting on Governor Scott’s desk aims to solve the housing crunch. But that cash has strings. “It makes it harder to use those funds for the missing middle housing that we talk about,” said Josh Hanford, the Vermont Department of Housing & Community Development commissioner.

He says much of the federal money is earmarked for transitioning homeless families out of hotels and into more stable housing. Congress is also working on making those funds available for home building.

But just because the money is there doesn’t mean it’ll get built. Development in downtowns means reforming land-use regulations. Act 250, Vermont’s 50 year-old-land use law, has protected the state and environment from runaway development. “It comes to the local communities and members of those housing accepting it and supporting those projects,” Hanford said.

Reform of the law has remained elusive during the pandemic, so Vermont is giving towns a million dollars to update local development laws to encourage downtown development.

Market forces, including the current spike in the cost of lumber and building supplies, could affect the federal cash too. Builders like West say they are booked for months. “We’re building houses that are in essence more valuable now than they will be when lumber prices go down, so they’re overvalued,” he said.

West says numerous state and federal programs for rehabbing and weatherizing homes are a big piece of the puzzle.

But even with the high cost of materials, state officials say housing needs across the board can’t wait.

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