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Kurrle & Samuelson: There is a lot of talk about our housing crisis. It’s time to walk the walk.

November 21, 2023

By Commerece Secretary Lindsay Kurrle and Human Services Secretary Jenney Samuelson 

Vermont faces a housing crisis. So, like we did during the pandemic and the flood, the Scott Administration has worked to tackle this issue with a collaborative, cross-agency approach bringing together the agencies of Commerce and Community Development, Human Services, Natural Resources and Digital Services, and the departments of Housing, Children & Families and Public Safety. This collaboration gives us a comprehensive view to this complicated problem.

And we’ve been successful in transitioning an unprecedented number of Vermonters out of homelessness and creating more new homes than Vermont has seen in decades. But the fact remains, it has not been enough.

Over the summer, we spent time analyzing homelessness data, including hearing directly from impacted households; current and previous housing studies; past and current housing trends; census data; unit creation projections; and more.

This work has led us to three important conclusions:

First, we have an acute deficit in the number of homes we need across the state and for families of all sizes, income levels and service needs. This is not a new conclusion, but we are gaining new insights into the scope, and working to understand the data on a county-by-county basis.

The analysis shows a current statewide deficit of roughly 6,800 housing units – meaning this is the number of additional homes needed to meet demand today. It doesn’t account for population growth or the 2,500-3,000 units we lose annually which fall into disrepair. And despite building faster in recent years than in decades, the data also shows we need to do more than three times as much to fill this gap.

Second, we cannot buy our way out of this housing deficit. From March 2020 to October 2023, the State invested nearly $400 million in historic federal funds to support new construction, fix up vacant units and expand shelter capacity. Yet we still face a significant shortage in every county. Notably, the type of affordable housing construction this money supports costs $450,000 per unit on average. At that rate, it would cost Vermonters an astounding $1 billion of public funding to create just over 2,000 units. Even if private investment was to match public sources to invest a total of $2 billion, it would only produce just over 4,000 units – which does not come close to filling the 6,800 unit gap.

Third, healthy local housing markets are essential to revitalizing communities. To have healthy, safe, vibrant communities across the state, retain and attract more workers, and reverse declining school enrollment numbers we need more housing. Without more housing, we can’t fully address homelessness because the root of the problem lies in the shortage of units. We can no longer rely on temporary and costly motel rooms that provide no services for these Vermonters – they need permanent housing.

So, what do we do? As we told legislators, the time for nibbling around the edges has passed. We must confront this challenge head on. The Governor will soon propose rapid action in three areas: modernize land use regulations; adjust tax policy that makes it unaffordable to invest in housing revitalization; and create more incentives for small and mid-size investors and builders to quickly create more housing opportunities in communities, and for families, who need them most.

While there is a lot of agreement on historic housing investments, these policy changes are often met with hesitation. We know big change can create frustration and fear, but we also know the status quo will not get Vermonters the housing they need.

We can’t keep kicking the can down the road. If we want to truly address homelessness and our workforce shortage, it will take state and local officials, the legislature, residents, environmental groups, and advocacy groups – all coming together to remove obstacles to homebuilding, including entrenched NIMBYism and a system whose design – despite good intentions – has limited housing for decades. We owe it to Vermonters to act now to ensure our state’s future is bright. 

Lindsay Kurrle is the secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, which includes the Department of Housing and Community Development. Jenney Samuelson is the secretary of the Agency of Human Services.