Top row: Craig Miskovich, Sue Fillion, Jason Van Nest. Second row: Christine Hart, Chris Campany, Becca Balint. Right: Moderator Joyce Marcel.
Voices Live via BCTV
Top row: Craig Miskovich, Sue Fillion, Jason Van Nest. Second row: Christine Hart, Chris Campany, Becca Balint. Right: Moderator Joyce Marcel.

Crushing the housing crisis

What defines the housing crisis in Vermont, and what are some of the ideas that people are putting into place to address the problems? A community discussion.

A note on process: In the interests of the reader, text has been edited for clarity and concision in a way that intended to preserve the participants' meaning, ideas, and fundamental self-expression. In the interest of readability, this is not a full transcript. We encourage readers interested in engaging with these issues to view the original Voices Live! forum video at

As always, we want this not to be the last word on any of these issues - just the first. Reader responses are welcome at [email protected].

BRATTLEBORO-Following are excerpts of a conversation about housing that took place virtually on March 18 as part of The Commons' Voices Live! series, which seeks to bring people together into a forum about difficult community topics and then, in turn, bring the conversation to a larger audience in the pages of the Voices section.

As framed by moderator Joyce Marcel, a frequent contributor to The Commons as a reporter and columnist writing on politics, housing, and homelessness, "the housing problem as we know it is a national problem, it's not a Brattleboro problem, and the solutions are many. Here, we are wrestling with: Why are we in this mess? And does it even matter? Or, What do we do about Act 250 - is the land use protection act hindering housing construction? Should we protect it?"

Other questions that the topic raises: "What kind of housing do we want? High-end? Affordable? Section 8? Do we want houses? Do we want apartments? Are they in the village centers or in the fields?"

And then there's the question of who would qualify for this housing.

"Housing for seniors is a very big issue all of a sudden," Marcel said. "I'm a senior now, and I'm living out in the middle of the woods on a dirt road. This is not going to be viable in another 10 years. Where do I go? There's no place in town.

"What about the "not in my backyard" folks who don't like change?

"Or, my favorite question of all," Marcel said. "Do we just let the boomers die, and then there'll be lots of housing? There'll be a glut! It's an issue, and we've got a lot to say about it."

Vermont's U.S. representative, Becca Balint, discussed the Community Housing Act, a bill she recently filed, and she discussed how the legislation would address the housing crisis as well as the merits of drafting potential laws that have very little practical chance of seeing any action in the current Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

In the second half of the forum, a coterie of Brattleboro area professionals who are working toward solutions to the housing crisis - Chris Campany, Christine Hart, Sue Fillion, Craig Miskovich, and Jason Van Nest - discussed some of the demographic and economic forces that are creating the difficult housing situation.

'We don't have enough money in Vermont alone to help tackle that issue'

Rep. Balint files federal legislation to address the issue of providing enough housing at the national level, with hope of building bipartisan support

Becca Balint, U.S. representative (D-Vt.): I hear about the shortage of housing from Vermonters in every corner of the state, and it's very important to me and my whole team to work together to find solutions.

I recently introduced the Community Housing Act. It's federal legislation designed to tackle some of the biggest barriers to addressing our housing crisis both in Vermont and of course, nationally, since it is a federal bill. And we are trying to offer some creative solutions and some very big investments.

So it's hundreds of billions of dollars in housing investments - nearly half a trillion dollars. And it is that big, because that's what's needed.

Vermont is feeling it acutely. Other states like New York and California are also feeling it acutely.

Pretty much every congressional district across the nation is dealing with a housing shortage. The estimate is that we are short over three million additional units of housing in order to meet the demand.

That's because housing, as you all know, sits at the nexus of so many of the challenges that we face in our communities: the national workforce crisis, the crushing income disparity, the devastating mental health crisis, our struggles with the opioid epidemic.

Vermonters know that we're in the middle of an acute crisis here, despite the great work that was done in the Legislature, both when I was there and after I left. We did invest millions of state and federal dollars into creating more housing, but we still have a lot more to do.

I hear from Vermonters constantly that they can't find housing, that they're worried that their kids and their grandkids aren't going to be able to stay in the state. And with some of the highest rates of homelessness per capita in the country, we need the power and the resources of the federal government to help. We don't have enough money in Vermont alone to help tackle that issue.

I always like to ground the conversation in the fact that housing is the foundation upon which all of our lives are built. We have to have access to safe housing, because it offers working families stability and opportunities that they need to succeed in whatever line of work they want to be in.

Housing gives stability to kids. It lets workers move from one part of Vermont to another to get better opportunities. If the housing isn't there, that's holding them back. And, of course, when we look at the mental health crisis and treatment of substance use disorder, safe and secure housing is completely at the center of getting people the help that everyone needs and deserves.

It's not just in our cities and our population centers - it's important that this bill offers some solutions for rural areas as well. Rural Vermonters are seeing a reduction in housing stock, because of the influx [of buyers] coming from the pandemic and post-pandemic.

So much of our housing stock is old. Across the country, we've also seen skyrocketing rents, because we have some predatory landlords and hedge funds buying up houses and rentals, and then essentially price fixing, which I can talk a little bit more about later.

So I'm very proud to have introduced this package, but I also know it is not all-inclusive.

A big part of the bill is community-based housing, which would increase the supply of affordable and deeply affordable housing. And we have some provisions in here to help keep renters in their home and keep rents affordable for the long term.

And you also talked about zoning issues and Act 250. We're really trying to incentivize eliminating the barriers to increasing the supply of housing. We've also included massive investments in the housing trust fund, to tap into the land trust model and shared equity model.

We don't need just short-term solutions - we need housing that is going to be affordable over the long term. The bill also increases a fee that is assessed on the [mortgage underwriting] work that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do, and that additional fee will go directly into the housing trust fund so we have a stable source of income going forward, and it will provide grants to states like Vermont to produce and preserve housing for low- and very-low-income families.

The rural-specific programs are also important for keeping Vermonters housed. Rural America is often left behind, so we have to make investments at the federal level that are not just geared toward population centers.

These investments [would help] individuals and families, but we know that making investments in housing also helps communities as a whole. That's why I'm here, to hear directly from our constituents. We want your feedback and we want to hear specifically: What are you seeing and experiencing in the housing market? And what else could we do at the federal level to help address our housing crisis?

Joyce Marcel: I just need some specific idea of what we're talking about here. What are we talking about? What's actually going to happen?

Balint: So there are many, many parts of the bill.

We have something called the Housing Trust Fund, and it grants money to states to produce and preserve low- and very-low-income housing. We are wanting to invest $450 billion.

And a lot of times in Congress you worry about the long-term solution for funding something like that, about the need to have a constant influx of cash to be able to grant out to states to build more housing. So we have proposed in this bill to increase a financial fee on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which would set aside additional money that would then flow into the housing trust fund. We'd grant this constant influx of cash to states for them to be able to build more what we call affordable and deeply-affordable [housing].

We'd also invest $150 billion in the capital management fund, and this would give community development financial institutions money to focus on low-income communities to help finance loans that support affordable housing.

The top line is that there are essentially three buckets in the bill to make huge investments to increase the supply of housing. We know the housing market, from top to bottom, is short millions of units. So there are many, many provisions in here to literally increase the supply of housing.

Then we have rental supports in this bill to keep people housed when they may be struggling to pay rent. So we look at the Emergency Rental Assistance Program that was very successful during the pandemic, and we would make that a permanent fund to directly assist people when they come up short on their rent. We also would provide eviction protection grants.

So these are the three big buckets: building more housing, provisions to keep people housed, and increasing housing availability for rural renters.

Some price fixing is going on across the country with rental units. Many larger housing investors use [property management software] RealPage, which allows them to price-fix rental prices across a huge area of land, which of course makes it very difficult for people to feel like they're in any kind of a competitive market.

So we would charge the Department of Housing and Urban Development with making a database that landlords would have to send their information to so we can keep track through our antitrust work to make sure they wouldn't be price-fixing.

We're also excited about charging HUD and the Health and Human Services Division to come together to create a task force to figure out, How do we coordinate getting people substance use disorder treatment when they're in affordable housing? There are limitations to what can be done in terms of medical interventions in housing, and we feel like that has been a barrier which has prevented people from staying housed.

Marcel: Wow. OK, that's... that's quite a lot.

Balint: Yeah, it's a big bill.

Marcel: What's the chance of this getting passed?

Balint: Well, there's always a chance of parts of it getting passed this session. I'll just say that Democrats are not in the majority in the House.

Marcel: But you're close.

Balint: We are close. So we're always looking to see if there are parts of this that can go on to another bill that is moving. And I know from talking with other colleagues that more housing bills will be unrolled in the next few weeks, and we're hoping that we're going to be able to partner.

At this time, when we're in the minority, we want to put down some markers for how much money we really should be investing.

Marcel: OK, we've got lots of questions.

From Chris Hart: "I applaud the inclusion of public housing in your bill and the removal of the Faircloth cap."

Balint: In 1999, a federal cap was placed on the development of new public housing on how many units could be built. It's part of the reason we're in the mess that we're in right now.

So it's past time that we we repeal that to make it possible once again to develop new public housing.

Marcel: That's good to know. Public housing capital improvements have been severely underfunded by HUD for decades. This is Chris again. "Have you considered an additional infusion of capital money to housing authorities so they can address the significant need for improvements in their very old housing?"

Balint: Yes, we have, and we know the need is there and so really appreciate you making a plug for that. It is definitely on our list.

Marcel: OK. "Can you please ask the congresswoman what is in her community housing act to support new homeownership?"

Balint: There's a lot to support homeownership. We're going to be putting half a billion dollars in a shared equity housing fund that we're going to establish. This doesn't exist yet at the federal level. And it will award grants to eligible nonprofits and housing finance agencies to create, expand, and sustain shared-equity homeownership.

When you have equity that is shared with a nonprofit, it means that for as long as you are in that home, you are able to have sort of a fixed price that you know that you're going to be paying, and we want to keep that perpetually affordable over the long term.

There's a part of Section 8 that has never really been fully actualized or funded, and that's the Section 8 down-payment assistance programs, so you could use vouchers essentially to go toward not just rental, but homeownership - finally - which is how it was envisioned when it was first created.

One thing that's particular to Vermont is that we asked to increase the small minimum that goes to the state from $3 to $6 million, so that we will have more money flowing to our partners like the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust and the Champlain Housing Trust.

So we're constantly looking at both fully funding programs that exist or, where we can make a tweak in a program, to make it work more for Vermont.

We also want to permanently authorize the USDA Multifamily Preservation and Revitalization Program. This makes it possible for owners of multi-unit houses in rural areas to refinance, so they can continue to make units available for renters in rural areas. And there is also a section 521 in rental assistance in the USDA. It is making it possible for rural renters to stay in their homes. We want to reauthorize this program because it's up to expire.

Marcel: OK. Chris Campany "just want[s] to note that a key issue to developing the quantity of housing that is needed today and into the future is public wastewater and water infrastructure."

Balint: I agree, Chris. [We need to make sure] that that doesn't fall off our radar screen in terms of infrastructure investments that are needed, again, at the federal level. These are the kinds of investments that were made to build the suburbs, essentially.

We need that same level of investment in rural America to upgrade water and sewer because you're right - we can't support additional units without that happening.

The laborshed stretches from from Bennington and over to Keene and down to Greenfield and Northampton. What kinds of agreements are you thinking about with Hinsdale or with, you know, across the river there at Bellows Falls?

You've said that in some ways, we are part of the same housing community and labor community. So what could that look like?

Campany: Really, it is just literally just getting the towns talking to each other about what the possibility might look like.

As a planner, you can look at the lay of the land and where it would make sense to develop housing. The Hinsdale dynamic is: You've got a brand new bridge with a sidewalk going across it. You've got an existing bridge and island complex that'd make a fantastic pedestrian park. Then you've got the old railroad bridge, so you've got three bridges going across.

Balint: Right.

Campany: The railroad bridge possibly might be able to carry wastewater. I think the new bridge could, too. But you've got the wastewater plant on almost immediate proximity across the river in Brattleboro.

And if we start talking about how this would make sense even just from a basic objective planning - without the politics - to start, you know, What might that look like? Where might we be able to better accommodate large quantities of housing? And what would it take to support that? And how could it benefit both sides?

To my mind, it'd be a similar conversation up in Rockingham and Walpole. I think it's just starting to have the conversation before deciding anything - just like: What are the possibilities?

That's the general idea. I don't know if it'd work or not. And, of course, at the district level, it's just a concept. We make no decisions.

Balint: Well, the thing is, as we know, we are limited in places like Brattleboro in terms of where there's buildable land remaining. And certainly, we haven't even talked about what happened this summer with all the flooding, and how we know our low-lying areas are going to continue to flood.

I certainly have seen all of the work that's going down along Williams Street to try to prevent flooding. But we do need to think more broadly. I should be in touch with our New Hampshire House members, too, and talk to them about what could be included in a bill like this one to make it easier for multi-state partnerships.

Marcel: What are the possibilities for securing funding for people with old homes and low incomes to make these houses more resilient to climate change? Not necessarily to provide more housing - though that's possible, too - but just to be able to stay in our homes?

Balint: We know that part of the challenge in these older homes in Vermont is that we need to be able to do rehab and refurbishing to be able to stay in the homes, and I know for some older Vermonters who would like to be on one level. There aren't a lot of houses right now available on one level, so you're trying to make it work within the home that you've got.

And so this bill provides grants for nonprofit developers to work with authorities to rehab old housing stock for affordable units. It's not directly referenced in my bill, but I do support more work to weatherize.

There are other bills moving through Congress that are specifically geared at weatherizing. I know that's a really important aspect of this. And I know State Sen. Wendy Harrison has had a rehab program through the state as well, I don't know if that's still being funded. I think it would be helpful to know those provide direct assistance to be able to do that rehabbing.

Wendy Harrison, state senator, Windham County: Yes, that program is still in effect - the Vermont Housing Improvement Program. It's on pause now because we're [updating it]. The amount per unit will be expanded and what folks can use the money for will also be expanded. It should be ready to go in the next couple of weeks. So thanks for everyone's patience.

The program provides grants between $30,000 and $50,000 to private homeowners for the purpose of bringing apartment units up to code, primarily, and then there are some incentives to rent to folks getting out of incarceration and those kinds of things. But it's a really effective program and in terms of cost, when the state gave us an update on the price, we were getting updated units with an average cost of $36,000 per unit, which is 1/10 of the cost to the public sector when we do other types of housing. So it's a really important part of the puzzle.

We won't get everywhere with this because it's one unit at a time, but it does preserve the character of the community, too, especially when it's used in the historic downtowns.

Marcel: The next question is: "How would this legislation help the Winston Prouty mixed-income and mixed-use neighborhood proposed for Brattleboro, or other housing production that meets the needs of moderate- to middle-income households?"

Balint: A real thrust of this is to make sure we keep people in their homes, and we want to make the Emergency Rental Assistance Program permanent. We know that it's much more difficult once people lose their housing to get them rehoused, and it's horrible for the emotional life of that person and their family. What we want is direct assistance to people to be able to stay housed.

And so what I'm hearing from that previous question is, there may be also an aspect of this that's about individual homeowners who are elderly and cannot move to a one-level house. Yeah, Joyce, I'm looking at you, kid!

Is there an opportunity to have some other part of the building...

Marcel: ...Yes! Elevators. Just bring elevators. (You could call it the Joyce Marcel Amendment.)

Balint: We're going to continue to try to find whatever support that we can for that particular project. We're focused on this most specifically on the issue of affordable and deeply affordable housing, because we know that the housing market is the whole market. And when you increase units in any part of the market, it helps everybody within the market.

I've seen the plans for Prouty - it's very exciting. And we're going to stay in close contact to see if there's a way that we can help.

Marcel: OK. Now we're going on back to old homes. "What are the possibilities for securing funding for people with old homes and low incomes to make these houses more resilient to climate change? Not necessarily to provide more housing, though that's possible, too, but just to be able to stay in our homes?"

Balint: There isn't anything specifically in here related to climate adaptation, though that's incredibly important.

I do know that dealing with climate change and weatherization will be dealt with more in some of the bills that my colleagues are introducing. We were really focused on low [income] and deeply affordable housing because we know that there's an incredible need.

But I'm hearing from this gathering tonight how many people are in homes that really aren't meeting their needs. And certainly I think about my own house: We did a whole lot of work re-insulating the house because we felt like all the heat was just going right out of all the poor seals on the windows. Most of Vermont is like this - we have a lot of old housing stock. I'm seeing a need for another program specifically geared toward that.

Marcel: We also are in the middle of climate change as well. The effects are not as drastic as in California, and we're not on fire. But we have a lot of water damage, a lot of trees and power lines falling down, a lot of power lost. Climate change is affecting Vermont.

Balint: Oh, absolutely. I've met a number of people who are moving to Vermont because they're trying to escape the wildfires. It's not coming. It's already here.

Marcel: And a lot of people are moving here because we have water and they have drought. But we may have too much water in a couple of years. And we're all learning how to deal with this.

OK, here's a good question: "Please talk about the problems caused by the need for housing, the labor required to produce the housing, and the need for education to build and renovate housing to meet energy standards."

And I'll add on to that the fact that finding a plumber, finding a carpenter, finding somebody to do work on your house is incredibly difficult right now.

Balint: I talk to employers in every industry, across the state, saying that they're short labor but they can't bring people in because there isn't housing available. And so I completely understand - it's very difficult to get a plumber or an electrician, absolutely.

And yet, these are really great jobs, and we need to be training young people who are interested in them.

But you're right. It's completely connected. The housing stock isn't there.

I was just talking with an employer up in Chittenden County. They did a final set of interviews with somebody who was very excited to move here to work on a very exciting technology project, and there was no housing so they decided to go elsewhere.

It's high end, it is service workers, it's across the spectrum.

Marcel: Margaret says, "Families whose incomes are above the many low-income programs needs to be addressed. Joyce mentioned the boomers - there are many of us with houses that could sell in a matter of days. But where would we go?

"Some communities of tiny homes for seniors with public transportation nearby is needed. If you want rural areas to increase housing, water and sewer for many towns are needed."

Balint: One of the struggles that we've had in Vermont for years is that when it comes right down to it, people don't want more land developed to build more housing.

Around the state, everywhere I go, people say we need more housing, and almost in the same breath they say, "Yeah, but I don't want it here."

I'm wondering how that may be showing up in Windham County and how that impacts this conversation.

Marcel: Well, that's the NIMBY problem.

Balint: And I'm wondering if it's shifting.

Chris Campany, Windham Regional Commission: I don't think so. In the conversations I have with individuals and in meetings with towns and others, you'll hear the same: the cry for the need for housing, but "we don't know who will move in there if we build this housing, and it might be people that are going to bring problems with them that we don't have."

And this is not unique to Vermont. I've experienced it in every state and every jurisdiction where I've worked, and there's so much fear over change and over not knowing who might move in that people will sabotage the availability of homes for themselves, for their children, for their parents, for their neighbors.

I'm not 100% sure how you get over that. Even as acute as the need is now - and I'm hearing a lot more conversation about, or just the sheer recognition about, the need for housing - I'm not necessarily seeing the aggressive action that needs to be taken, especially at the municipal level, to make it possible.

One of the exceptions, though, is Brattleboro, which probably has been one of the best municipalities in the state as far as trying to get their rules and regs up to date, really looking at the infrastructure issues, really kind of leaning forward and thinking ahead. There's actually a great model there.

But one of the unique things about Brattleboro, of course, is they actually have a dedicated professional planning staff to work on this stuff all the time.

Balint: Yes, and we know that that is an issue, obviously, for smaller towns, if they don't have a dedicated staff for that.

We have to make this connection for people that if you want to have a thriving downtown, you need people to be able to work and to live there.

Because it's funny: Whenever I go out with my kids and we try to grab food downtown, they ask, "Why is it taking so long?" I tell them, "Because everybody has a workforce crisis. And they're working as hard as they can."

Just adding more housing to the housing market helps at all levels. And the bill does also support mixed-income developments. That is one of the things that they're trying to do at Winston Prouty as well.

Marcel: This is from Deborah Luskin: "Does the housing bill include any provision for transportation that does not rely on private cars?"

Balint: It doesn't, but we know that this is a real need. One of the things that we constantly come up against in trying to do any kind of work in rural America is looking at transportation.

It's not specifically around transportation in this bill, but it is about changing the way we think about parking minimums. As it relates to housing, we know that that has been a barrier.

And so we are thinking about using space in a different way when it comes to cars, because that can prevent more housing from being built.

Marcel: Christine Hart notes that the number of those over the age of 70 in Windham County is projected to more than double [to] over 4,000 people between 2020 and 2040.

Balint: I've been very concerned about the issue of seniors needing other housing that works for them. They want to get rid of their big, rambling house that is drafty, and they're spending so much money on the heat, but there's literally nowhere to make that lateral move.

Marcel: We have the Rich Earth Institute people saying, in response to the wastewater question, "In case people don't know, they work on reclaiming urine and using it for fertilizer. They've had very great success with that on farms here."

"Our region has the good fortune to have additional expertise about the most promising innovations in wastewater. Rich Earth Institute and BrightWater Tools work locally, but also nationally and internationally.

"Our technologies are going to Europe first because they are ahead of the U.S., but Vermont housing could be facilitated by one of the solutions that we're aware of. For some of those solutions, we represent the technologies being developed in other places."

Balint: And it is diverting that out of the waste stream as well. As we think about housing in the future, you're right - that needs to be a component.

Marcel: Next question: "I am concerned about how much of the money in the act may be targeted towards helping people pay landlords, instead of helping our in-demand workforce to build equity."

Balint: The Rental Assistance Program is an investment - again, remember, it's $3 billion in federal dollars over five years. You look at the amount of investments that we're putting into the housing trust fund, the capital management fund, and home investment partnership, we're talking about nearly $500 billion.

I understand there's this tension between, you know, wanting to have a direct assistance program for people to be able to stay housed - that's critically important. We have a homeless problem.

We know that people get better health outcomes when they have a roof over their head. So it was important for us to have an aspect of this that is about giving people an opportunity when they're in dire straits to stay in houses. That's a better option.

But the bulk of the bill is actually investments in this shared-equity model, so people can build up equity. I think it's really important that we're thinking about people having, over time, the opportunity to build wealth and not just to be paying rent. I understand. So it is a big part of the bill.

Marcel: This is from Meg Mott: "Could it be that your bill might get Republican support? There are Republicans in Congress who have expressed concern for affordable housing in rural areas."

Balint: Yes. And actually, I'm so glad you mentioned that. I do a lot of bipartisan work. One of the caucuses that I'm part of is the Bipartisan Rural Health Caucus.

I do think there is a lot of opportunity. And I was talking with the ranking member on the committee that specifically deals with housing and some of the other longtime members of that committee, and they said that, yes, that this is something that cuts across every congressional district and there is an opportunity.

I'll just be honest: I think the opportunity is going to come when we flip the House, because what we saw when Biden had the House of Representatives, we were able to make an infrastructure bill that offered billions of dollars of investments. I think we need to do a similar thing for housing, and I think we will bring some Republicans along.

Marcel: Okay, one more question: "Do all these bills take Vermont residency into consideration? I am concerned about the LLCs and out-of-state or county entities that are buying up properties and investments to provide short-term rentals for tourists rather than using these homes and properties for Vermont residents and families."

Balint: Remember, a lot of this is going to organizations in the state and state government that understand where their money needs to go. This is not going to be used to fund conglomerates coming in to buy up housing. We have a part of the bill that is dealing specifically with price fixing in this situation, with multinationals buying housing.

So we are also doing something that you'll be interested in - a study on the practicality and the economic effects of taxing specifically second homes, and having a federal fund that is fed into for creating more housing for others by taxing second homes.

So that is a part that I know a lot of homeowners are excited about. It may not be a part that my Republican colleagues are excited about. But we're always looking for an opportunity to have a fixed funding stream. And I think there's a case to be made that if somebody has two homes, perhaps they should be paying into a fund to help others have one. Just saying.

Marcel: That's a quote you could embroider on a pillow.

Balint: Yes.

What's standing in the way of building more homes?

Chris Campany, Christine Hart, Sue Fillion, Craig Miskovich, and Jason Van Nest illuminate the challenges of increasing housing capacity in Vermont

Campany: So just from where I sit, Windham Regional Commission serves 27 towns in southeast Vermont. It's the 23 towns in Windham County; Readsboro, Searsburg, and Winhall in Bennington County; and Weston in Windsor County. We assist towns and affected local governments [...] and collaborate with them on regional issues.

And I've worked in a number of other states, including Orange County in New York, in the wake of 9/11; Carver County, Maryland; Mississippi; and Louisiana. I've also worked for the federal government in D.C.

One of the challenges we have in not only Vermont but New England is these really small geographies, these tiny towns - by any measure, they're pretty small, even Brattleboro, our biggest. In our region, Brattleboro is the largest town, with a population of around 12,000, and our smallest [unincorporated] town is Somerset, with a population of six.

Towns really have to make a lot of major planned land use decisions, including whether or not to have a town plan, whether or not to have zoning, and whether or not to do things like investment in new infrastructure or the infrastructure they've already got.

And this requires a lot of political and operational capacity that a lot of these towns don't really have a strong tradition of doing. There's nothing wrong with that - it's not that they've done anything wrong, it's that a lot of them have focused on roads and those kinds of decisions, not necessarily [things like] develop[ing] housing.

And it's also really difficult to plan for housing in these small geographies when it may actually make more sense, because of the size of a neighboring village or something else, to actually have more housing in the town next to you, as opposed to your town - just because of topography, infrastructure, existing built environment, whatever the nature of their village might be.

So, and just to be clear, there's over 500 units needed right now. Londonderry did a housing study that said they need more than 300 units right now. We're talking several hundred units just in this region alone. And so we really need to talk about housing at a substantial scale that creates efficiencies that drive down cost and can actually achieves the housing numbers that we need.

And the availability of public wastewater and water systems is a primary factor in determining where housing can be built at a volume that's needed.

This map shows village centers and downtowns. Where we have no community water and sewer, it's red. Yellow is where you have sewer only; blue, where you have water only; and green, where you have water and sewer.

And to really achieve the scale and the sizable number of housing units that we need, it's really only where those green dots exist. If you just have wastewater, that can help, but you're going to really need a community water system, too.

So in southeast Vermont, we're really talking Readsboro, Wilmington, Brattleboro, West Brattleboro, Algiers Village, Putney, Bellows Falls, and Saxtons River.

In the West River Valley Route 30 corridor and the Route 100 corridor, you have amazing village centers that are often really walkable, bike-able, desirable places to live. But it's really hard to add many dwelling units, if any, to those villages at all.

Our other challenge as a state is that, because a lot of money is of federal origin, there's this kind of perverse system where we make towns compete for these funds. So first, towns have to have the ability to compete, and they have to have the ability to administer the grants to do wastewater and water systems planning.

It'd be a lot better if as a state, we just have the engineering and design function ready to go to just do it as opposed to towns having to compete for a series of grants to have that done. I think it'd make it a lot easier.

So one of the things I'd like to talk to Becca about: Is there a way to make the EPA and other federal grant funds that ultimately come to the state easier for towns to use.

Some of our towns - like Londonderry, Jamaica, Grafton - have really led on the EPA wastewater grants and have found that these new wastewater systems can support only what's already there. They can't support actual smart growth, like, how do you grow new housing units in, like, more of a neighborhood setting and preferably, ideally, out of harm's way for flooding? And how do you actually increase the number of units in the community? And then, in cases where it makes sense, having more cross-border conversations - not only interstate but also inter-municipal conversations.

We're working with UMass Amherst and the Architects Foundation's Communities by Design program to work with four towns up in the northwest corner of our region - Winhall, Londonderry, Jamaica, and Weston - to see what it would be like to have four towns collaborate on housing planning. If that model works, then we'll replicate it elsewhere, among groups of towns within the region.

Marcel: Chris Hart, do you want to talk a little about maybe the aging and housing?

Christine Hart, Windham Aging: We're a community collaborative of people - about 20 of us who meet monthly - and we're focused on not just housing, but all of the issues of aging, transportation, all the things that people have brought up.

A lot of these questions really are right in the wheelhouse of Windham Aging. So I would encourage everybody to go to our website and see what we're working on. It's very exciting, and it's really needed work. As I said, we're looking at this huge wave of elderly folks coming.

Marcel: We're not coming - we're here.

Hart: Well, we're here, but where are we going to put all these people?

One of the big areas of Windham Aging is on health and how healthy aging, health outcomes. And you can't do that if you don't have decent housing.

One of the things that we"re advocating for in Windham County are more facility beds - residential care, assisted living, nursing home, every level of facility. We've lost a lot of them in Windham County. And when people, when my friends, need that level of assistance, they have to leave town, they have to go to New Hampshire.

And so while the state isn't really excited about that and really is moving away from that housing, we are really advocating for it. And we're going to do more work to develop some pretty hard numbers around just how much of that we need.

But we're going out and doing listening sessions throughout Windham County right now. They're fascinating. We did one at Valley Cares, and they're saying, "If they're full, where do I go? I live in Townshend and I don't want to leave my friends."

So it's going to be a pretty dire need. And we are mindful that when the elderly move, there's a waterfall. So, if I'm elderly, I leave my house. My house hopefully can go to somebody who's younger, and that starts a whole movement in our housing stock. We need to have that movement, and right now, people are not leaving their houses.

I had a great discussion with Elizabeth Bridgewater of Windham & Windsor Housing Trust over their rehab work, and she said that one of the barriers is certainly the trades and those issues that were brought up.

But an even bigger barrier is the psychological, mental, and emotional issues that go with having to move. You can't dismiss it. It's very real. And if we don't have supports and services for seniors, both as they age in place, but also when they want to move or just make improvements, then they're not going to make them.

We're working hard on developing a vision in 2040 and really getting good hard data about what we need to prepare Windham County for this. We are and will be the second-oldest county in the second-oldest state in the country.

Sue Fillion, Brattleboro Planning Department: I think sometimes in our department we're not necessarily getting the word out enough about some of the changes that we've made to try to encourage housing development.

We had this experience after Tropical Storm Irene, working with Brattleboro Housing Partnerships trying to find a site to relocate the housing from Melrose Terrace. We were finding that our zoning regulations were presenting a lot of barriers.

Things lined up in various ways. But when Covid started, and there was a heightened need for housing, we started looking at getting rid of our density standards in zoning districts that have water and sewer.

What that means is a little technical. You might have had one unit per 6,000 square feet. So if you had a 7,000 square foot lot, you could only have one unit and you weren't going to get a second unit out of that.

We realized that we had all these artificial regulations that were holding things back when really what most people were concerned about was the form of the housing, so whether it had two units in it, four units - it didn't really matter to them, as long as the kind of the pattern of development was the same for the neighborhood.

So as emergency interim zoning, during the Covid emergency, the Selectboard actually got rid of that. The sky didn't fall.

We were also able to take advantage of a bylaw modernization grant from the state of Vermont. They still have those grants available annually, to really take a deeper dive into our zoning regulations and figure out where were the bad barriers to housing development.

We did some some different things and were ahead of some of the state statute changes that were making it easier as well.

We now treat one unit to five units as a permitted use, so we're reducing regulatory review, making it a little bit more certain for developers - particularly in this case, probably small-scale developers, the kind of people wanting to build extra units in the neighborhood or something like that.

But at the same time, we realized that we were rejecting a lot of things that people should be living with. If it was a big apartment block, you know, everyone had to have their private space, whether it was a deck or a patio. We realized that those are niceties. They're not necessarily necessities when we have so many people who need to be housed, and they bring additional costs to a project. So we removed a lot of those requirements.

And then we also had a new missing middle housing overlay district, where you could have up to nine units. This was really trying to promote a certain type of housing, whether it was garden apartments, townhomes, things that we weren't really seeing a lot of development on - five units in a house on High Street or something like that. We wanted to make it really easy to do that.

Our new zoning regulations were passed by the Selectboard last summer, and we actually had our first application for a missing middle housing project, which is nine townhomes. We actually think they're going to do an additional three.

We've been advocating for Act 250 reform, and we're pleased to see some of what's coming out of the Legislature. We think that in areas like downtown Brattleboro there's a lot of redundant review. So we're really supportive of trying to find pathways to make Act 250 easier for developers.

And we're taking advantage of the different state designation programs - village center, downtown (which Brattleboro has), and the neighborhood designation area. We worked to expand that to include the Winston Prouty campus, and also around West Brattleboro Village so that, you know, certain development projects can have some of the benefits that come with those projects. So that's been really good.

And then as a community, there's a real acknowledgement that housing is a big problem. We had done a housing action plan in 2021, and that identified a conservative need for 517 housing units - half rental, half single-family - and the demand could easily rise to 700.

And so with discussions about the American Rescue Plan Act funds that the town of Brattleboro received, there was a lot of community support towards putting some of it toward housing. The Selectboard is thinking of actually not using the ARPA funding, but we have another source of funding, dedicating some funds to that.

And we're doing some work to identify town-owned lands and do some pre-development planning so that we can make those available to developers and reduce their up-front planning costs.

So there's more that we can do. We're interested in looking into parking reform, how can we get more housing on Putney Road, and doing more outreach with property owners. But we're pretty excited with what we're doing so far.

Craig Miskovich, attorney and developer: I will be pithy and maybe provocative: What housing crisis?

We had about 600,000 people in Vermont in 2007. And 15 years later, we had about 600,000 people. We have a very small increase as a percentage in our number of Vermonters. And our housing stock has grown at a similar, albeit small ,percentage.

So why does it feel like our housing crisis is so acute?

The answer is because we have a workforce housing crisis.

Fewer Vermonters are in the workforce now than were immediately prior to Covid. There's a couple reasons for that - primarily, that the folks who left the workforce were the older Vermonters that we talked about: the seniors, the boomers.

And contrary to public opinion, Vermonters tend to stay in Vermont and stay in those houses. And those houses don't produce labor anymore.

For the entire state, we went from the highest workforce participation rate in the country, just prior to Covid, to significantly under the median value.

So we have a workforce housing problem, and I would advocate that that's where we should focus our efforts - that we should find ways to build workforce housing.

And, as Chris said, What does workforce housing look like?

Well, when I was 22 years old, I lived in an apartment building. It was cheap, it was efficient, and it was it was built at scale.

So if we Vermonters want to have people to work in our places and have businesses to tax to generate our revenue, we're going to have to build the housing for the people who are going to work in Vermont, which means our population is going to grow because we're going to import labor. We're going to have to have places for those people to live.

And that is antithetical to a whole bunch of Vermonters' idea of what Vermont is - that we just need to stop getting bigger, we need to stop building houses, and we need to be exactly what we are.

The problem is, we just got old, and we either need to move old people out of Vermont [Marcel laughs], or we need to build housing for new people. That's it.

Marcel: You can move me anywhere you want. (Oh, boy, we have to really unpack that one.)

Fillion: We need housing. We do need all types of housing. I will say that. Low-income or affordable, very affordable housing, middle-income housing. We need it all.

Miskovich: Yeah, all housing is homeless housing. All housing is is workforce housing. All housing is reducing the stress on the system. Right?

Senior housing is fantastic. As Chris said, you build senior housing, you move folks out of big old five-bedroom houses in Brattleboro into one-bedroom senior housing apartments. With one apartment you've created five new bedrooms.

Marcel: Jason, do you want to tell us a little bit about modular housing?

Jason Van Nest, architect, professor, and entrepreneur: I'm joining you from downtown, on Main Street in Brattleboro, Logic Building Systems. And we are laser-focused on driving down the cost of building affordable housing. We wholeheartedly agree with assessments like Craig's and Sue's that it's great that Becca's bill [envisions] huge investments to increase the supply of housing, but let's make those dollars go as absolutely fast and absolutely as efficiently as possible.

When you look around at our colleagues around the globe and you ask who's not in a housing crisis right now, two population centers - one in northern Europe and one in Southeast Asia - really stand out.

And what they've done over the last 50 years is they've adopted off-site construction practices. They're building literally modular components of housing in off-site factories, things like bathrooms and kitchens, and they're very efficiently transporting them to job sites to plug in.

I join you as a tenured professor at New York Institute of Technology, where I run the Center for Offsite Construction. And we are promoting and even drafting the first standards for how modular kitchens and bathrooms would plug into a host building.

If you think about how USB plugs standardized how we put thumb drives, hard drives, printers, and whatever else into our computers, we can do the same thing for how we we build housing, especially low-income housing and affordable housing, in America.

The second thing we're doing right here in the laboratory is perfecting the first modules that will conform to those standards. So we're creating essentially a kitchen in a box, a utility room in a box, and a bedroom in a box that act more like an appliance that you would plug in - say, the same way as a dishwasher - into new and affordable apartments, condos, and multifamily housing.

And so all are welcome to drop by and take a look at the prototyping we're doing here, but we're really trying to learn lessons about how to increase the supply of housing and to minimize the amount of onsite labor, which is the most expensive labor almost in our entire industrialized ecosystem here in America.

By pushing connections into a controlled environment and minimizing the number of connections that we make on job sites, we get more efficient; we also get more green, driving 30% of waste out of dumpsters on job sites, and driving 40 to 60% less carbon dioxide to produce the same kitchens and bathrooms.

Lynn Barrett, Vermont Independent Media (forum host): In Maine, they are building a number of modular homes, for homeless and low-income folks. Jason, it's something to do with cement, correct?

Van Nest: I don't know this particular project with specificity, but I do know that there's about three different ways that we're trying to introduce industrialized processes.

3-D printing homes essentially takes a lot of the human labor, weather conditions, and whatnot out of the job site. You can set up a 3-D printer to extrude thin layers of concrete. And you just need one or two laborers to put in formwork for the windows and doors. This is a major piece of making both sustainable housing, because you can make nice, thick walls with lots of insulation in this way, but also, you can set that printer to go 48, 72 hours, and realize a whole series of homes very efficiently.

It's a piece of the puzzle, with other pieces of the production puzzle like Logic Building Systems dropping in modular kitchens, bathrooms, and utility rooms to 3-D printed site work like this. We really are all together driving down the cost of affordable housing. And that's really the thread that's been tying together so many of the questions we've seen today.

It's not that we need to drive more money to drive up the supply of housing, but we have to get better at how we make housing. The way we make housing has essentially not been updated in 100 years. And if you think about the history of the automotive industry, it's had two revolutions in those 100 years. So we're really just updating a 100-year-old means of production.

Miskovich: I am the president of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation. We believe that housing is economic development and that we need to dedicate our focus and our resources toward adding to our housing stock in Windham County and in the communities that we serve. And we believe that if we build it, they will come - and actually, that they're probably already here.

We see that in kind of substandard housing doubling up and other accommodations for the lack of housing in the community right now. So I think there is there is some labor that's in Brattleboro, and we need to find housing for those folks.

There is, of course, some international immigration that could fill in some of the housing or the workforce demand that we have.

And there's also domestic in-migration, especially from regions of New England that are more densely populated than Brattleboro, Windham County, and that have surplus labor, then folks could move up. And that would be great, right? Like having new young folks move into the community to provide that labor and start their careers and their lives would be fantastic.

That's how I arrived in Brattleboro, now 20-some years ago, and I hope that we can continue to open up that door and be welcoming to folks because we need more people in Vermont. Maybe that's the part that's upsetting to some.

Campany: Craig is right. I think there are a number of younger workers here who are doubled up in apartments, renting rooms in homes, but you know, we gotta move faster because as appealing and lovely as Brattleboro and Vermont is, you're only going to rent a room in a house for so long, in your late 20s, early 30s, before you say, "I probably need to do something different."

And that's where we really need to talk not only about new people, but just retaining the people we have in appropriate housing for where they are in their life stage.

I'm afraid that as we look at the census, going forward, we're going to see more people departing Vermont because of the lack of not only affordable housing, but also just housing that's appropriate for their age.

And that's going to be older Vermonters, too; it's going to be people who can afford to make that move.

Barrett: David Neumeister comments: "The number of young workers below 40 in Vermont is going down every year and will continue to decrease for the next 20 years at least. We need the BDCC and others supporting an immigrant push with housing for them." Agree.

Van Nest: That follows national averages. The construction industry is in a labor crunch, and we are essentially reaping the rewards of sending a majority of our young people over the last 30 or 40 years into white collar jobs and undergraduate degrees and away from the trades.

It's wonderful that Brattleboro specifically has a trade school, the Windham Regional Career Center, attached to its high school and we ended up, unfortunately, in Vermont training some of New York City's and Boston's best electricians, plumbers, and other tradespeople. They just find incredible opportunities in urban centers.

And so not only is David right, that we face a long-term, durable trend - fewer tradespeople serving our aging housing here in Vermont - but it creates a critical need to update the way that we realize and build housing with less labor.

It's basic high school economics. When prices go up, it's because demand goes up. The supplies going down is really what's driving a lot of what we find in Becca's legislation.

And the response is up to us as a community.

This Voices Voices Live! Forum was submitted to The Commons.

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