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In Brattleboro, housing costly and hard to find

Selectboard wants to keep the affordable housing issue on its radar

BRATTLEBORO—Is the cost of housing putting or keeping locals in poverty?

Is it driving young adults and elders away?

Is a housing shortage hindering economic development because new business owners and employees have nowhere to live?

And, if all this is so, is there anything the town can do about it?

Selectboard members discussed affordable housing, and what role town government can possibly play in it, at the Nov. 20 regular board meeting.

Board member David Schoales, who introduced the topic during a review of the Selectboard’s goals, said the topic has frequently come up in conversations with individuals and with representatives from various social service agencies in the area.

All of them, he said, “have expressed concerns about housing.”

Schoales said that, specifically, townspeople are concerned about a shortage of housing and believe that the housing that is available is too expensive.

He admitted he has no expertise in these matters — “it’s just what people have told me.”

But, he cautioned, “it’s holding back our economic growth, [and] it’s making it hard for seniors to stay in their homes, hard for our kids to stay here because they can’t afford to live anywhere in town.”

One possibility: keep affordable housing affordable

Schoales presented his colleagues with some questions to help them assess the extent of the issue.

Board members, he said, should first ask how can they learn what housing needs exist in town and who can help them gather this information.

Then, the board should determine what process its members should follow to ensure they get “broad community engagement,” Schoales asked.

Planning Director Sue Fillion, who recently attended the Vermont Statewide Housing Conference, hosted by the Vermont Housing Financing Agency, shared some of what she learned there.

This year’s theme was “the impact Vermont communities have on housing affordability,” according to the event’s announcement.

The keynote speech by architect Liz Ogbu encouraged attendees to reframe the housing conversation from the abstract approach of statistics to one of direct action to ensure housing is sustainable and inclusive.

What Fillion took away from the speech, she said, is that “we think of housing as a commodity, not as a basic human right” and that it’s crucial for the town “to change that message.”

One way the town can achieve this goal, she said, is for the Planning Commission to take a close look at Brattleboro’s zoning bylaws.

Fillion mentioned preserving “naturally occurring affordable housing,” a term that has popped up in the last decade or so and typically refers to lower-income housing stock not supported by public funding.

In many parts of the country, Fillion said, “developers are coming in and buying up properties and then redeveloping them and raising the rents.”

She noted that in Brattleboro, “there are a lot of properties [...] not owned by the [Windham & Windsor] Housing Trust. How do we go about preserving those?”

Selectboard member Tim Wessel said this practice, when large developers “come in and buy up housing blocks that are, right now, affordable, and then make them unaffordable,” is a component of gentrification.

“They raise the rents precipitously,” said Wessel, who noted, “It’s about money.”

“It’s also about classism and trying to make sure that certain people are less visible in our sweet little towns,” noted board Vice Chair Brandie Starr.

Other towns take measures

Fillion gave a few examples of towns in Vermont that implemented affordable housing programs. Places like South Burlington and Barre have conducted town-wide housing needs assessments, unlike Brattleboro.

Those towns are making action plans and have set up municipal housing trust funds, she said.

Integral to this conversation, some board members said, is helping people out of poverty rather than trapping them there through high rents and the “benefits cliff.”

That term defines the sudden and complete loss of financial assistance when an individual receives state and/or federal assistance. One tiny raise in their wages can, in many cases, completely disqualify them from the programs that have helped them, making it hard to cover all living costs.

Wessel argued the necessity of having a “strong middle ground” as a socioeconomic destination for lower-income people.

What’s the town’s role?

But how to get there? What’s the town’s role in moving people out of poverty?

The Selectboard had no concrete solutions at the Nov. 20 meeting, but some members wanted to keep the conversation going.

“I don’t want this subject to die,” said Starr.

Schoales advocated for keeping affordable housing on the Selectboard agenda. As a possible next step, he said the board should review the housing needs assessment completed by the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.

“I want to blend experts and community feedback,” Schoales said, noting that the effort must start with understanding the actual needs.

Fillion noted a theme at the housing conference was that “it’s really important to hear people’s stories.”

Wessel compared this issue to the subject of panhandling. Many community members offered their feedback, he said, and it’s important for the Selectboard to “be present for this conversation.”

“It’s national, the many things that feed into poverty, homelessness, [and] drug addiction,” said Wessel, who said that, like the panhandling issue, “it’s much bigger than us.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #488 (Wednesday, December 5, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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