Federally funded affordable housing boom still won't be enough to solve shortage of units in Vermont
As a debate over emergency motel housing plays out in Montpelier, organizations across the state are embarking on longer-term solutions to the issue of homelessness.
Federal coronavirus relief funds have fueled a boom in affordable housing projects, and more than half of those units will be set aside for people who are currently unhoused.
Analysts, however, say Vermont will need more housing units than are currently in the construction pipeline in order to solve the housing shortage in the state. And some experts say it’ll take another infusion of federal money in order to meet demand.
On a recent morning in central Vermont, a construction crew was transforming a 50-year-old motel on the Barre-Montpelier Road into a new kind of residential complex. When the project is complete, likely by April, the Good Samaritan Haven will have another 35 beds for people experiencing homelessness in central Vermont.
“This is mind-blowing for us,” said Rick DeAngelis, director of the Good Samaritan Haven, as he surveyed the worksite. “I mean, we knew that we needed expanded facilities for various reasons, and this exceeds our dreams and our hopes.”
The Welcome Center at Twin City, as this housing project is called, is being developed in partnership with Downstreet Housing. And it's one of three new housing sites Good Samaritan is preparing for the unhoused population.
You’re going to have to do something or just collect bodies on the side of the road. I mean, those are your two options.
Thanks to a $5 million grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, DeAngelis says Good Samaritan has been able to rethink its approach to addressing homelessness.
“If you compare this to what we have right now, which is congregate housing, people stacked on top of each other in bunk beds, bumping into each other, no privacy, this is what I would describe as a trauma informed environment,” DeAngelis said.
The Welcome Center at Twin City is just one example of a broader phenomenon playing out across Vermont.
In Rutland, contractors are putting the finishing touches on Lincoln Place, a former Catholic elementary school that’s being transformed into housing for both low-income adults and people experiencing homelessness.
Mary Cohen, head of the Housing Trust of Rutland, gave a tour recently of the $6.5 million project she’s overseeing.
“Not all those who are homeless or chronically homeless have good renting skills, so putting them all together, mixing everyone up, models good behavior and there’s more chance for success as a renter,” Cohen said.
The site will include seven one-bedroom apartments and 12 studios – micro units with lots of built-ins. Cohen says 10 of the smaller units will be dedicated to those experiencing homelessness.
Unlike transitional shelters, Cohen said Lincoln Place will be permanent housing.
“If someone comes in off the street and rents an apartment from us, they can stay here for the rest of their lives,” she said. “If and when someone decides they want to move on and up, we will then re-rent to someone experiencing homelessness.”
Gus Seelig is executive director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which is responsible for disbursing the bulk of the $144 million in federal coronavirus relief money that lawmakers and the governor allocated for affordable housing earlier this year.
Between 2012 and 2017, VHCB brought about 950 units of affordable housing online.
Between 2020 and 2023, Seelig says VHCB-funded projects will deliver nearly about 1,150 new units — more than double the rate from previous years.
“Not only is housing insecurity at an all-time worst, at least in our collective memories, income inequality has never been worse, and so the housing insecurity is a manifestation of that,” Seelig said.
Seelig said even this latest infusion of affordable housing units won’t alleviate that insecurity.
Production of new housing units in Vermont has fallen sharply over the past 30 years. And more than a third of Vermont households now pay more than 30% of their annual income for housing costs.
“So whatever imbalance we had between supply and demand has gotten worse,” Seelig said.
According to a housing needs assessment conducted by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency last year, Vermont will need nearly 6,000 more primary residences by 2025 in order to meet demand. And the gap between what Vermont needs, and what Vermont has, is one of the reasons that more than 2,000 Vermonters relied on emergency motel housing during the pandemic.
Josh Lisenby is one of the thousand or so Vermonters who lost that motel housing when the state tightened eligibility guidelines in July.
Last week, he decided to start camping outside the Statehouse until Gov. Phil Scott fully reinstates that motel housing program.
On the first day of his protest, Lisenby wore a black t-shirt with the words, “I am Human.”
“I thought it was an important message … that we’re all humans, that we deserve to be treated as humans, that humans need three basic things in life: food, water and shelter,” he said.
Lisenby, who’s been living at a shelter in Vergennes since he got evicted from his motel room in July, said his interactions with the social safety net in Vermont have been fraught.
“’Why don’t you just?’ I guess is the comment that I always come back to. ‘Why don’t you just get a job? Why don’t you just get a house? Why don’t you just?’ And it’s just not that easy. That’s what the problem is,” he said,
Asked about projects like the ones in central Vermont and Rutland, Lisenby said he’s beginning to detect some positive change in how Vermont approaches the issue of homelessness.
“I mean, I hope that society is changing, but I think they’re just forced to,” he said. “You’re going to have to do something or just collect bodies on the side of the road. I mean, those are your two options.”
Seelig said the housing problem isn’t unique to Vermont, and he said it’ll likely take a large federal infrastructure bill to fully address the shortage of affordable housing stock.
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