Guest Editorial: Affordable housing is a tough nut to crack but proposed bill offered a pilot project

The availability of good housing for middle income Vermonters, near their place of work, is a problem in Vermont. Contractors struggle to build affordable homes for this market.
In Chittenden County, a consortium of community leaders dramatically made that point with the establishment of a campaign, “Building Houses Together,” to build 3,500 housing units over the next five years. Both rental housing, with 2 percent vacancy rate, and owner-occupied homes for middle income Vermonters, are in short supply in Burlington, as in other areas of the state. Twenty percent of the 3,500 unit total is to be built by nonprofit housing organizations that depend upon state financing. While additional governmental involvement was deemed desirable, there were no specific requests mentioned by the group.
The affordable housing crunch is not a new issue. The House Economic Development Committee, on which I sit, has taken testimony from employers over the past several years that quality housing for middle income Vermonters is in short supply and is affecting recruitment efforts. In the past legislative session there was a “workforce housing” bill, H-702, that substantially addressed all the major issues raised by the Chittenden County consortium.
Why is a healthy stock of median priced and affordable rental units and owner occupied homes important to a community?
For starters new housing construction means more jobs — carpenters, electricians, plumbers, etc and greater econmic growth. It also means greater housing opportunities for potential new hires at area employers. This can lead to breaking down barriers in employer thinking about whether to expand in Vermont or elsewhere. Plus a few more millennials might be able to move out of their parents’ home. And when we grow the inventory of median priced housing it has a trickle-down effect and benefits the lower-priced housing market as well. In short, a healthy housing inventory translates to healthy communities.
 So what did H-702 propose and what happened to the legislation?
H-702, which later became H-865, was designed to establish a minimum of two pilot projects for the construction of housing that would be affordable for households with incomes up to 120 percent of their county’s median. Area builders say that they cannot reach this market’s needs (lower costs) due to several factors, including the cost of land, permits, and infrastructure costs (sewer, water, roads, power).
The bill addressed three of those factors cited by developers and builders.
First, it streamlined the permitting process by targeting three prime housing development locales — Neighborhood Development Areas, Community Growth Zones, and Downtown Designation Zones. These zones enjoy special treatment when it comes to most permits. Development in these designated zones also protects against undue stress on land and water resources, traffic congestion, and pollution.
Second, the high cost of land was addressed by requiring a minimum of four single family detached units per acre — maximizing investment through high density construction. Each project was to have a minimum of 12 housing units.
Finally, we funded H-702 with one million dollars. This money was to be used for the infrastructure needed in at least two projects, such as roads, sewer and sidewalks. The House Appropriations and Government Operations committees worked hard to find the funding without forcing additional taxation. The bill required at least one project be in a community of 10,000 people or less. The idea here was to have some geographic diversification. 
As a Republican, and a first-term legislator, I realized support from House leadership and committee chairs was critical in moving the bill. My effort in working with members of the House paid off as the bill passed unanimously in the House General and Military Affairs Committee, and then on the floor, it was voted out 139 to 4. This points out a valuable lesson, that with good communication, effort and conviction, a minority party member can get tri-partisan support for major legislation.
The bill then went to the Senate where, unfortunately, the good news ended. With state dollars in short supply the Senate money committees choose other ways to spend the allocated one million dollars, and the bill that had tri-partisan support in the House did not emerge to become law. Lesson number two, tough fiscal times can lead to a promising bill’s downfall. H-702 would have advanced economic development and have made Vermont a more affordable place to live for at least a few Vermonters and might have set the stage for a more fully-funded initiative.
But when push came to shove, other spending priorities took precedence.
As a member of the minority party, I recognize legislative victories are not easy. While I am disappointed that this workforce housing didn’t make it to the finish line, I am heartened to learn that leaders in Chittenden County share my commitment toward solving this issue and, with the continued support of my district, I look forward to working with them and my colleagues in Montpelier to pass this initiative — or one similar to it — in an upcoming legislative session.
Rep. Fred Baser is a Bristol resident and state representative of Addison-4, compromised of Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton and Starksboro.

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