Developers, realtors push Vt. lawmakers to streamline regulations to address housing crisis

Published: Jan. 18, 2023 at 6:04 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Developers and realtors in Vermont say part of the solution to the state’s housing crisis is repurposing existing buildings. The groups presented research to lawmakers Wednesday showing the potential of developing unused commercial space to create housing opportunities for Vermonters.

“Properties that we may have just said, ‘That’s not feasible. We could develop somewhere else quicker or more affordable’ -- we’ll start taking a deeper look at these possibilities,” said Nicola Andrews with Barre-based Downstreet Housing & Community Development. “We really are at a huge housing shortage.”

And they -- along with realtors -- believe that transforming commercial space into housing could be viable solution to the current housing crisis. “We lost 115 million square feet of office space in the pandemic, essentially -- or the use of it -- but things like retail shopping centers are all buildings that are less utilized than they used to be. It’s kind of a natural -- Hey, we have a housing issue. We have these empty buildings or nearly empty buildings. Maybe we can put them together,” said Peter Tucker with the Vermont Association of Realtors. He says that by getting municipalities to ease restrictions on zoning laws and by getting the state to provide subsidies for developers, communities could substantially increase their available housing.

“The design review board process can be really competitive and lengthy but also pricey. When we go through these lengthy permitting processes, there are more things that we have to follow up that red tape that could make it more difficult for us to develop,” Andrews said.

“The part that we think will be very effective is allowing for the extinguishment of a commercial activity permit on a building if it’s being replaced by residential housing. That means that it’s much more certain. The Act 250 doesn’t really get involved,” Tucker said.

Downstreet is currently turning a former school and office building into nine new apartments and says they would take on similar projects if the process is streamlined. “I think that this is an opportunity to make things a little bit more lenient to make this process easier, quicker, and more affordable,” Andrews said.

“The reality is, it is one piece in a big puzzle that we need to address our housing crisis,” Tucker said, adding he hopes to see progress on these issues by the end of the session.