Secretary of Human Services Jenney Samuelson said she expects some of the estimated 2,500 people to “self-resolve” their lack of housing by the time the state winds down the pandemic-era housing voucher program.
Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons
Secretary of Human Services Jenney Samuelson said she expects some of the estimated 2,500 people to “self-resolve” their lack of housing by the time the state winds down the pandemic-era housing voucher program.

Scott administration defends plan to end motel program

At least 6 Democratic legislators threaten to uphold a potential veto if the state budget does not include funding for a pandemic program to house 2,500 people for which no housing is otherwise available

MONTPELIER — As thousands of Vermonters experiencing homelessness stand to lose their state-funded emergency shelter come July, Secretary of Human Services Jenney Samuelson said she expects some of the estimated 2,500 people to “self-resolve” their lack of housing by the time the state winds down the pandemic-era program.

“There are some of the individuals who we talked to in the hotels who have alternative plans, and they're waiting for the program to end before initiating those,” Samuelson told reporters at a May 3 press conference alongside Gov. Phil Scott.

In a legislative session punctuated by political tit-for-tats between Scott and an emboldened Democratic supermajority in the Legislature, there is at least one thing that the two branches agree on: ending Vermont's emergency motel housing program. Democratic legislative negotiators have cut the program out of their 2024 budget, and on May 3, members of the Scott administration defended the move.

The program began during the Covid pandemic, prompted by a historic influx of federal money and a sharp rise in homelessness. Vermont is now estimated to have the second-highest rate of homelessness in the country, behind only California.

Three years later, the well of federal cash has run dry - yet Vermont's housing crisis lingers.

“We need to move on,” Scott said of the motel program on May 3. “I don't underestimate how difficult this is for some of those folks involved, but it's time. We have to end it sometime. We can't keep going with a $20 million a month program.” (The program actually costs between $7 and $8 million a month, according to data provided by state officials to VTDigger.)

Asked what she meant by program participants being able to “self-resolve” their housing situation, Samuelson said there are many options.

“Those could be going back to living with friends and family,” she said. “It could mean being able to find a unit with a voucher that they currently have. There are a myriad of different mechanisms. Sometimes, it's going back to where they've lived before, and that may or may not be in the state of Vermont.”

But even a Section 8 voucher in hand has proven insufficient for many Vermonters struggling to find affordable housing.

Getting beyond a 'Band-Aid' approach

With the state having one of the lowest vacancy rates in the nation, there simply are not enough units available - and landlords, facing demand that is higher than ever, can afford to be choosy about their tenants.

Roughly 75% of Vermonters who finally receive a Section 8 voucher - sometimes after years on a waiting list - ultimately have to rescind it because they can't find a home to rent before it expires, VTDigger has reported.

Samuelson said that's another reason why the motel program should end: Valuable state resources are being devoted to a Band-Aid approach, while that money could go toward building more units.

While she did not vocalize the real possibility of Vermonters being forced to live in cars or tents, the human services secretary did point to summertime's lack of “adverse weather,” in arguing that it is the “right time” to end the program.

But in a warming climate with more frequent and extreme heat waves, Vermont's own Department of Health writes on its website, “Heat illnesses can be deadly.”

Asked on Wednesday if she sees a need for the state to expand cooling-site capacity come summertime, Samuelson answered, “I don't think that that's directly related to housing.”

All in all, Samuelson said, “now is the time” to end the program.

“We could keep extending this and extending it forward, but that's only putting a pause on folks' lives and the ability to look at what the next step is, rather than helping them make that next step,” she said.

Opposition grows in the House

A small coalition of Democratic and Progressive lawmakers in the Vermont House is threatening to vote to uphold Gov. Phil Scott's predicted veto of the state budget if legislative leaders do not agree to continue funding the program.

Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, an organizer of the effort, said six Democrats (herself included) have agreed to vote to sustain a gubernatorial veto on the budget if additional funding is not added to continue the program.

“The budget is critical, but also being a statement of our values - I cannot withstand upholding a budget that is so inhumane and so immoral,” she said on May 5.

Rep. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, P/D-Burlington, who leads the House's five-member Progressive caucus, said it's possible the caucus, which has asked for the program to be fully funded, would do so as well. She implied it was likely but stopped just short of making such a pledge.

“We just haven't officially had that conversation, so I don't want to speak out of turn from my caucus yet,” she said.

But Mulvaney-Stanak added that she, personally, would vote to uphold a veto if the program isn't funded. Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, confirmed to VTDigger that she was prepared to do the same, although she stressed that she would much prefer House and Senate budget negotiators hash out a deal instead.

The move is risky. Democrats and Progressives together control 109 votes in the 150-member chamber. It takes a simple majority to pass a bill, and a two-thirds majority of members present to override a veto. Scott has telegraphed a veto on the budget is highly likely, as Democrats are planning to raise taxes and fees to fund a slate of new initiatives, but he's never outright said he would.

His administration had requested $26 million for Vermont's general assistance program, a figure lawmakers in both chambers had so far accepted. For the first time, on May 4, in the waning days of the session, state officials outlined in detail to members of the House General and Housing Committee what that money would cover.

Outside the winter months - when the state plans to relax eligibility for its motel-based shelter program - a person receiving Social Security or disability benefits would be entitled to 28 days of shelter in a single calendar year. So, too, would someone 65 or older, or in their third trimester of pregnancy.

Rep. Emilie Krasnow, D–South Burlington, visibly bristling with frustration, asked administration officials what she should tell her friends and constituents.

“What can I tell them when they asked me: Why didn't you help me? But why do I have no place to go? Why is this bench where I sleep now?” she said.

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