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Advocates brainstorm solutions for affordable housing problem

MIDDLEBURY — Filling Addison County’s affordable housing void will require a lot more public and private investment, better tenant-landlord relationships and some new, creative initiatives — such as the “HomeShare” program that matches people in need of shelter with seniors needing help with household chores.
That was the major takeaway from last week’s “Summit on the Status of Housing in Addison County,” an event that drew around 30 state and local affordable housing advocates to the Vermont Coffee Co. Playhouse in Middlebury. Officials representing non-profit organizations like the Addison County Community Trust (ACCT), Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) and the Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC) on June 20 discussed current challenges in developing affordable homes and possible solutions to the dilemma.
“Future funding streams for developing new units (of affordable housing) are getting more and more competitive,” ACCT Executive Director Elise Shanbacker told the crowd, adding programs for creating new low-cost homes “have mostly been level-funded at the federal level.”
ACCT develops, owns and manages more than 600 permanently affordable homes in the county that serve more than 1,000 people. Those units are in even higher demand now, given the growing disparity between residents’ incomes and rents charged for area housing.
Addison County has a less than 1-percent vacancy rate for housing, according to ACCT, which on Monday also reported:
•  A single parent with one child would need to make $23.56 per hour in order to have a livable wage in Addison County. That’s almost $14 per hour more than the current minimum wage.
•  There are currently 92 homeless people in the county, which doesn’t count folks who are temporarily living with relatives or friends.
•  Sixty-six percent of county renters are paying a disproportionate share (more than one-third) of their incomes on rent.
But advocates said there are some reasons to be hopeful.
Gov. Phil Scott has proposed a $35 million housing revenue bond to boost the state’s affordable housing stock. The state would dedicate $2.5 million in annual property transfer tax revenue, through 2038, for payment of debt. Vermont Housing and Conservation Board officials have estimated the $35 million — and additional funding it would leverage — could create and improve up to 650 affordable units in the state.
Plans call for all the bond proceeds to be used for both affordable and “workforce housing,” a population that local advocates say they often can’t serve because their income level is a bit too high to qualify for current subsidies.
“That’s a very hopeful and exciting thing,” Paul Ralston said of the housing revenue bond.
Ralston, a former Middlebury state representative, said he hopes Addison County nonprofits can jointly put together an affordable housing project to qualify for some of the bond revenue.
Jeanne Montross, executive director of HOPE, specifically pitched the idea for a boarding house for low-income residents. Such an amenity, she said, would provide low-cost housing for single people seeking to improve their respective work situations. She lamented the fact that the county has lost hundreds of manufacturing jobs during the past decade and that increasingly, employers are only offering part-time work with no benefits.
Ingrid Pixley is residential services coordinator for CSAC. She helps secure housing for people who are disabled and/or dealing with mental illness.
Pixley said it “used to be easier” to secure housing subsidy vouchers for her clients. Adding to the conundrum, she said, is that the county has “lost a lot of one-bedroom apartments during the last couple of years.” She cited as specific examples in Middlebury the Battell Block, the Cobble House that was torn down to make way for the expansion of the Congregational Church of Middlebury, and the small apartment building that used to be located behind the Maplefields convenience store off North Pleasant Street.
Elizabeth Ready, executive director of John Graham Housing & Services in Vergennes, works with a lot of people transitioning from homelessness to independence. The organization, she said, tries to combine housing and related services to help clients succeed. To that end, John Graham Housing & Services owns and operates five transitional homes in the county and employs counselors to help clients find jobs and secure benefits for which they might qualify.
“People are really working hard, and it’s a matter of bridging the gap between lower wages, the high cost of rent and the absolutely impossible vacancy rate,” Ready said.
Bill Brim, executive director of the Turning Point Center of Addison County, underscored the need for housing for people recovering from substance addiction. The county currently has no designated housing for such folks, many of whom are exiting prison and are at risk of returning to their former haunts and bad habits, Brim noted. This lack of a safe landing spot has resulted in some inmates being kept in prison beyond their release dates, he added.
Brim has tried to establish a recovery center in the Middlebury area, but hasn’t yet been able to find an available spot that could conform to the town’s zoning rules. The Department of Corrections has repeatedly issued requests for proposals from developers to build a recovery center and/or transitional housing facility for inmates, but has yet to find any takers, officials said last Tuesday.
“Monetarily, it’s not a hard sell,” Brim said of the costs of a transitional housing versus the costs of keeping inmates in jail.
A HOUSING ALTERNATIVE
Montross noted solving the affordable housing crisis will require “thinking outside of the box” and trying new programs. She and other leaders of non-profits last week received details about an innovative program that they believe should get more attention in Addison County and beyond: HomeShare Vermont. The program helps people stay in their homes by connecting them with potential housemates who are looking for a place to live. While its primary goal is to help elders stay at home, HomeShare serves people of all ages and abilities. Participants are thoroughly vetted, according to longtime program volunteer Connie Kenna.
“We would like more (HomeShare) candidates,” she said, noting there are now around 10 matches in the county.
She acknowledged the program tends to work better in more urban settings.
“But it is hard for us to get people to go to many of the rural communities we have,” she said.
Local advocates promised to keep meeting to map out more ideas bridge the county’s affordable housing gap.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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