Lawmakers approve deal to extend motel shelter (for some) until the spring

With the deal in hand, a block of dissident House Democrats gave legislative leaders the votes they needed to override Gov. Phil Scott’s state budget veto

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers on Tuesday suspended their rules to pass, in a matter of mere hours, an eleventh-hour deal that will keep roughly 2,000 unhoused Vermonters sheltered in motels until April 1, 2024, unless state officials can find alternate placements.

Gov. Phil Scott is planning to give the measure his stamp of approval. After a meeting between the Republican governor and legislative leadership on Friday, administration officials worked through the weekend to collaborate on the legislation's final language. His press secretary, Jason Maulucci, confirmed Tuesday morning that, “barring unforeseen changes,” the governor would sign the bill.

The move is an about-face for Democratic leaders in the Legislature and Scott, who have argued forcefully for months that, absent federal dollars that once underwrote the effort, Vermont could not afford and needed to end a pandemic-era program which sheltered most of its unhoused population in motels.

But recent moves by the administration suggest even they believe they could use the extra time. Officials made the surprise announcement in late May that some would get extensions anyway.

“I would like to personally and publicly thank the governor for his part in producing what you see in front of you,” Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central, told his Senate colleagues on the floor Tuesday. “We are here on the first day of this veto session looking to adjourn by dinnertime because the House, the Senate and the governor together saw this need, understood that it would require more time and a more fulsome process than was currently in place.”

Legislative leaders, meanwhile, were also under pressure from a block of Democrats and Progressives in the House who had banded together to demand that the program be at least temporarily and partially extended. That group of dissidents wielded powerful leverage: the votes legislative leaders needed to override Scott's veto of the state budget.

With that deal in hand, Democrats in the block agreed to support the $8.5 billion budget. Lawmakers on Tuesday also overrode the governor's budget veto by a vote of 105 to 42 in the House, and 25 to 5 in the Senate.

“A month ago we were in a much different place with concern to those who were vulnerable in regards to housing,” Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, an organizer in the Democratic block, said on the House floor Tuesday before declaring her intentions to vote for the budget.

Maulucci said it “wasn't lost” on the governor that he likely helped lawmakers override his own veto. But he said Scott had decided it was the “right thing to do.”

“Including the provision that folks are eligible until they're offered a suitable alternative - the governor felt that that was a reasonable ask and workable, and in good faith decided to move forward,” he said.

The motel program has become the subject of public outcry. The day started with a small group of protestors chanting “Keep 2,000 Vermonters sheltered” in the House gallery. “You are voting to kill people,” one placard read. And Vermont's decision to end its pandemic era-supports, at a time when its rates of homelessness are among the worst in the nation, has also attracted the attention of national media outlets.

The new motel legislation was tacked on as an amendment to H.171, a bill overhauling Vermont's adult protective services. It will not re-enroll the approximately 800 people who lost motel benefits in June when the state narrowed eligibility. And it will not apply to those who fall into homelessness after July 1. Those people will have to ask for help under the state's much stricter pre-pandemic rules.

It will apply only to the roughly 2,000 people who entered the program before June 30 and who met certain eligibility criteria laid out in a mid-year spending package enacted into law this March.

Lawmakers are also attaching new conditions on the vouchers they are pledging to continue providing, perhaps the most significant of which is the requirement that motel residents contribute 30% of their household incomes to the cost of their stays.

Motel residents included in the deal will also have to accept any “alternative housing placement” within 48 hours. Those alternatives can include, according to the bill, “shelter beds and pods; placements with family or friends; … tiny homes, manufactured homes, and apartments; residential treatment beds for physical health, long-term care, substance use, or mental health; nursing homes beds; and recovery homes.” And if a motel or hotel decides to kick a program participant out for “misconduct,” they'll lose access to their voucher.

Those new conditions raised concerns for several lawmakers and advocates. Brenda Siegel, an activist and the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, said the new rules would subject people to a “Kafkaesque survival olympics,” and force many to fall through the cracks. House Progressives withheld their support for the legislation.

“We're trying to find housing for people. How can someone who's without housing ever put away enough money if we're taking a third of their income and putting it into this program?” Sen. Irene Wrenner, D-Chittenden North, said on the Senate floor, although she ultimately voted - alongside every single one of her Senate colleagues - in support of the bill. “Just food for thought.”

The legislation will also create significant new legislative oversight of the state's wind-down of the pandemic-era shelter program. Administration officials will have to report on a monthly basis about how many people remain, how many have transitioned out, and where they have gone.

Officials will also be required to try to negotiate better rates with hotels, and track and report how many residents received their $3,300 state-funded deposit. Advocates and residents had complained that some motels were wrongly pocketing the deposits that were intended to help motel residents who kept their rooms in good condition find permanent housing.

Lawmakers did not allocate any new funding for the extension or cut from elsewhere in the budget to pay for it. Instead, they have placed the measure on a list of things that will be funded if additional surplus revenues come in or if the state has spent less than expected on certain line items when it closes out the fiscal year on June 30.

But if that doesn't turn out to be enough, lawmakers have also said they can return to the matter when they come back for their next session in January. Speaking to her committee colleagues after reviewing the bill Tuesday, House Appropriations Chair Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, remarked that next year's budget adjustment - the annual spending bill passed early each legislative session to true-up the current budget - might be “a little more interesting.”

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