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Lawmaker Proposes Speedier Review Process For Affordable Housing Projects

Safford_Commons-Woodstock-Kenn_Sassorossi-Housing_Vermont-20150219.jpg
Kenn Sassorossi
/
Housing Vermont
Jim Pearce and Patsy Highberg, left, of the Woodstock Community Trust, Nancy Owens or Housing Vermont and Andrew Winter of Twin Pines Housing Trust celebrate groundbreaking for Safford Commons, an affordable housing development in Woodstock.

An Upper Valley lawmaker is proposing a way to reduce costly delays in the permitting process for affordable housing.

Woodstock Rep. Alison Clarkson says almost half of all renter households in Vermont pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income for housing. The rental vacancy rate in the state is only about 1 percent. And a Department of Housing study shows that the state needs 29,000 apartments to meet the needs of renters on a tight budget. So Clarkson wants to put affordable housing on a faster track for permitting, under the Act 250 development review law.

“I witnessed endless delays in a very important affordable housing project in Woodstock through appeals that have cost the project an enormous amount of money and made it less and less affordable. And our need for affordable housing is huge, both in the Woodstock area and the whole Upper Valley and actually all of Vermont,” Clarkson said.

“I witnessed endless delays in a very important affordable housing project in Woodstock through appeals that have cost the project an enormous amount of money and made it less and less affordable. - Woodstock representative Alison Clarkson

Clarkson has introduced a bill that would give scheduling priority to publicly funded, permanent affordable housing applications. They would be considered before all other projects seeking Act 250 approval, and a decision would be required no later than 120 days after an application is submitted.

Nancy Owens, president of Housing Vermont, a non-profit development agency, thinks it makes sense to shorten the timeline for housing projects subsidized by taxpayers. Last year the state invested $4.5 million in affordable housing, and another $25 million in loans and tax breaks. 

“Time costs money, right?” said Owens. “That’s the premise. And the more time it takes, that expense, a cost to the project, it means fewer homes are built. It means less affordable housing is being provided through the state.”

But some worry about speeding up the Act 250 approval process. Brian Shupe, executive director of Vermont Natural Resources Council, agrees that affordable housing projects sometimes run into stigma and unfair local opposition from neighbors.

But Shupe believes letting them jump the permitting line creates an uneven playing field, and could short-circuit the review of applications that raise complex issues, including environmental impacts. So he has concerns about the bill “from an administrative standpoint, from a fairness standpoint and from a perspective of how it would impact the Act 250 review process, which most developers would say is the one review process that works very well in the state,” he explained.

Rep. Clarkson says that process did not work very well for the affordable housing complex in her district, Safford Commons, which prompted the proposed legislation. The complex recently broke ground after more than seven years of costly litigation. But Shupe, of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, says that development was an exception. And he believes another way to avoid protracted battles is for local communities to clarify in advance where affordable housing is appropriate, so developers will propose projects unlikely to run into road blocks.

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