Housing crisis looms in race for governor
Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, is challenged by Democrat Brenda Siegel of Newfane.

Housing crisis looms in race for governor

New housing is desperately needed statewide, but Gov. Phil Scott and his Democratic opponent, Brenda Siegel, are at odds over how to make that happen

Politicians of all stripes, up and down the ballot, running in Vermont's busiest election cycle in years agree on one thing: Top of mind for most voters is the state's housing crisis.

But they do not necessarily agree about how to solve it. And nowhere are the differences in vision more stark than in this year's gubernatorial contest.

Thanks in large part to a massive influx of federal cash during the pandemic, Gov. Phil Scott's administration, in partnership with the state Legislature, has made historic investments in affordable housing in recent years.

But the state's housing crunch is a stubborn problem, and it has become perhaps the greatest test of the one-word credo that the Republican has consistently invoked throughout his governorship: affordability.

Scott's Democratic opponent, Brenda Siegel, who has made her housing activism a centerpiece of her campaign, has seized on this tension, and argued that Vermont is failing those who need help the most.

“Vermont has not become more affordable. It has become less,” Siegel said in a VTDigger debate last week. “The housing crisis has been barreling at us, and we still do not have a plan.”

Since March 2020, the state has plowed $338 million into affordable housing and shelter space, according to a tally provided by the governor's office. Gustave Seelig, the executive director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which is doling out much of the money on the state's behalf, estimates that recent state investments will create close to 4,000 new housing units.

Remarkably, about half are already built, according to Seelig, although that total also includes new shelter beds and motels converted into permanent housing. Local dignitaries recently cut the ribbon on 20 affordably priced condominiums in Winooski, for example, and a 30-unit complex for seniors - the first new multi-family housing project on the Lake Champlain Islands in more than 15 years - is slated to open this fall.

“Almost every month, there's a new project coming online that was funded during that period,” Seelig said.

But even amidst these successes, a dearth of housing remains. And while Scott has said he estimates the state's investments will leverage hundreds of millions more in financing for housing projects, he's also asked voters to be patient.

“It does take time. Permitting takes time,” Scott said during VTDigger's debate. “And all the infrastructure and the construction takes time as well. So we have a long ways to go, but we're on a path that I think is sustainable.”

Creative solutions

As Vermonters wait, some advocates echo Siegel's critiques and say the state is leaving some of its most vulnerable behind as massive, pandemic-era federally-funded public assistance programs end abruptly for thousands of residents.

A failure to plan ahead for this moment, they argue, makes a steep rise in evictions all but inevitable - just as temperatures drop. And with shelters full, they say there will be no place to go but the streets.

“A lot of money was put into building new housing, which is wonderful. We were advocating for that. But the government needs to make a commitment to the people who are stranded without housing while they wait,” said Rev. Beth Ann Maier, of Vermont Interfaith Action, a coalition of faith-based congregations working on social justice issues.

Like Siegel, Maier said she'd like to see the state government explore options like “pod” and “pallet” housing to temporarily provide those without homes shelter, as Burlington is doing. Several colleges across the state have shuttered in recent years, and she argued their empty dormitories could also serve as transitional housing.

Meanwhile, the state is spending upward of $5,000 a month per room in privately-owned motels to provide shelter to people experiencing homelessness. The federally funded project is set to run out of money in March.

“The administration is not putting forth any major plans to provide temporary housing other than the hotels, and unless they buy those hotels, it's just a black hole,” Maier said.

But in a recent interview with VTDigger, Scott said his administration has been looking at creative solutions. It's partnering with Burlington on the pod shelter pilot, he said, and has investigated the possibility of using empty dorms to provide housing to refugees. That effort faces a litany of obstacles, he said, including money and renovations to bring units up to code.

“It's not as easy as it might seem,” he said.

Scott has also argued that his administration has done its best to ramp down federal assistance in a way that protects the most vulnerable. And he cast doubt on concerns that “mass evictions” were on the horizon.

“I don't see that it's going to be an issue this winter, especially with our eviction laws. I don't believe you can evict during the winter,” he said.

No such policy exists. Landlords can and do evict tenants year-round in Vermont. Rebecca Plummer, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, which provides legal services to low-income people, wrote in an email to VTDigger that it was “shocking that the Administration's housing policy seems to be based on a myth.”

About 150 Vermont households are evicted by the courts every month, Plummer continued, adding that court evictions are “the tip of the iceberg,” since many tenants who receive termination notices leave before a landlord takes them to court.

Plummer argued that Vermont needs a moratorium on no-cause evictions - in which landlords do not state a reason for evicting a tenant - as well as an eviction diversion program and “significant state funding for rental and homelessness assistance and affordable housing.”

Tori Biondolillo, Scott's campaign manager, later acknowledged in an email that evictions “can happen in Vermont in the winter,” but said that, “in some cases, judges have discretion and choose not to.”

“In general, the eviction process in Vermont is very lengthy and can sometimes take up to a year,” she added.

Protections or property rights

Siegel has been in the public eye for years, advocating for drug policy reform and twice running unsuccessfully for statewide office.

But she is perhaps best known for an act of protest she staged last year, when she and Josh Lisenby, a friend who was experiencing homelessness at the time, camped out on the State House steps for 27 days to pressure the Scott administration to fully reinstate a pandemic-era motel program housing the homeless population.

It largely appeared to work, although Scott insists Siegel's “stunt,” as his surrogate has called it, did not factor into his decision.

Like most of her activism, Siegel's work on housing is informed by personal experience: the Democrat talks openly and often about having relied on public benefit programs, including Section 8 housing vouchers, at various points throughout her life.

Asked in a recent VTDigger debate when the gubernatorial candidates had last lived in rental housing, Scott paused before pegging it at “probably” 35 years ago. Siegel did not hesitate before answering with a smile: “Right now.”

Since their protest at the State House, Siegel and Lisenby have run an informal hotline to help Vermonters struggling with housing navigate the state's maze-like public assistance programs, and Siegel is full of ideas about how to overhaul the system.

One such idea: Vermont should create a “Common Application” - as with colleges - so that people can fill out one simple, universal application to qualify for benefits. The state should also create a housing ombudsman, she said, and a housing and homelessness bill of rights.

Siegel and Scott perhaps diverge most sharply where regulation and tenant protections are concerned. Siegel supports rent control, stricter regulations on short-term rentals, and a just-cause eviction standard, which would ban the practice of evicting tenants or terminating leases without stating a reason.

Scott, on the other hand, has consistently opposed proposals that he believes infringe on private property rights.

When Burlington voters overwhelmingly approved a charter change to ban evictions without cause, Scott vetoed the measure, which needed a green light from Montpelier to become law.

He also in 2021 struck down a measure to create a statewide rental registry, which Democratic lawmakers argued would allow the state to better understand its rental landscape - and help enforce safety and quality standards. (Scott did reluctantly allow the creation of a complaint-based rental inspection office in the state's Department of Public Safety in 2022.)

“It's not government's role to determine what you do with your own property,” Scott said this week.

Besides, the governor argued, what Vermont needs is not rent control - it is more housing.

“There's nothing like flooding the market with housing stock to reduce the cost,” he said.

To that end, Scott returned to familiar culprits: permitting, zoning and Act 250, Vermont's landmark land-use law. The state's regulatory thicket continues to inhibit desperately needed growth, he argued, echoing legions of for- and non-profit developers alike.

Scott for years has pushed lawmakers to make significant changes to Act 250 in order to make outcomes more predictable for builders, although his most ambitious pitches have consistently fallen prey to squabbles with the Legislature. Still, modest reforms were passed into law last session.

But many of the impediments to building also come from municipal zoning rules - not state regulations.

Developers frequently cite parking minimums, allowable uses, or density restrictions, to name a few obstacles. Scott freely acknowledges that those are a problem, although he's much more vague about the changes he'd like to see, or how to get there.

“I think we need to have that conversation. But whatever we do, across the board - that's why I'm suggesting that the Vermont League of Cities and Towns needs to be at the table - whatever we do should be consistent,” he said.

Siegel agrees that Vermont must make changes to its regulatory scheme. But she's similarly nonspecific.

“Make zoning rules more uniform across the state for the purpose of zoning more permanently affordable housing, to limit nimby-ism and create more consistency and geographic equity,” she wrote in a housing plan released this week.

'The demand is there'

Housing experts and nonprofit builders say the state's recent investments in affordable housing money are both welcome and overdue. But new construction in Vermont has been on the decline for decades, and they argue yet more will be needed.

An oft-cited report released by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency in 2020 estimated that Vermont will need just shy of 6,000 new homes and apartments by 2025. But that report was written before COVID-19 made remote work so ubiquitous and new urban transplants flocked to the state.

Factoring in the domestic migration into Vermont during the pandemic, Seelig, of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, now guesses that the state will need to build far more.

“We'd love to see another 10,000 homes in Vermont of various types,” he said. “The demand is there.”

Chris Donnelly, community relations director at the Champlain Housing Trust, said he expects nonprofit affordable housing developers like his to push the state to put part of this year's surplus toward more one-time housing investments.

But builders of affordable housing also want more ongoing funding. And by law, they're already entitled to it.

State statute says that the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, an independent agency established by the Legislature in 1987, should be getting 49% of all revenues from the state's property transfer tax. But for basically as long as that rule has been on the books, successions of Legislatures and governors - Democrats and Republicans alike - have ignored it, cannibalizing large shares back into Vermont's general fund.

Donnelly referenced an analysis that showed the housing board would have received an additional $65 million between 2011 and 2022 if the state had followed its own rule.

“If we want to get on a sustainable path, then that's the way to do it - to return to that formula,” he said.

Siegel and Scott don't frequently agree about money. Typically dubious of new taxes, Scott consistently argues Vermont must live within its means when new expansions to the social safety net are pitched.

To critics of how the state is winding down its massive federally funded rental assistance program, Scott often points out that the unprecedented levels of federal aid that made this and other relief programs possible are simply drying up.

Asked in a VTDigger debate about putting ongoing state funding towards more affordable housing, the governor gestured to yet more obstacles in the way.

“I don't think we have the capacity, in some respects. We don't have the workforce to build all the housing that we need. And that's going to be a stumbling block,” he said.

Siegel seized on this as yet another example of his administration's cynical fatalism.

“Throwing our hands up right now when our community members are unhoused is not an option,” she responded at the time.

But the Democrat sometimes dances around the material hurdles that Scott brings up. Her housing plan was largely silent on funding, although when pressed by a reporter, she ultimately offered that maybe the state could cut some of its economic development incentives - like its worker relocation program - and tax short-term rentals, before pivoting to the point she often makes on this topic: not investing in such supports is what will cost the state more in the long run.

On the topic of the housing board's funding formula, however, Scott and Siegel were in agreement.

Yes, both said: The state should give the agency its due.

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