Letter to the editor: Ideas to help solve housing crisis

It’s summertime, but the livin’ is not so easy for Addison County residents who face housing insecurity. It’s not easy for employers seeking employees or for young people who want to put down roots. The scarcity and high cost of housing is taking a toll on people and businesses. As the county changes and diversifies, it’s time for an open discussion about community values that are reflected in our development policies. What is truly in the public good? How can we reconsider the way zoning and Act 250 affect affordability and where and how people are allowed to live in our community?

As reported in the Independent, the National and Vermont Low Income Housing Alliances named Vermont the 13th-most expensive state in the country for affordable rental housing. Within Vermont, Addison County is the third-most expensive county and has less than a 1% vacancy rate for rental housing. Now that the federal moratorium on evictions has ended, more people are expected to join the swelling ranks of the unhoused. Local business owners — even those paying top wages — struggle to attract employees because people can’t find a place to live. Young people see their dream of owning a home get further out or reach. The housing crunch has become a crisis and touches people across economic and demographic spectrums: from migrant workers, to jobseekers, to telecommuters, to business owners that want to grow.

The crisis continues to escalate despite heroic efforts by local and state agencies to solve it. Vermont’s senators have channeled an influx of federal COVID-related and other funding to Vermont and the state Legislature is using it creatively. County groups are collaborating with state and federal programs to create more “affordable housing” and to support those who have lost their homes. Vermonters have the expertise at the state and local level to address this issue, but can we get the go-ahead to provide “decent housing” from our local zoning boards and our District Environmental Commissions who implement Act 250?

It’s time for fresh thinking. Municipalities that face similar trends throughout the country are asking tough questions and coming to the conclusion that restrictive zoning and outdated regulations can suppress new housing development, drive up costs, limit opportunity and widen racial and economic disparities. Why should single family zoning continue to dominate the landscape when demographics have changed? Why aren’t there more incentives for people to live and work closer to job centers, in walkable communities? Why is a group of bright, well-resourced college students allowed to live in a congregate setting when the same number of unrelated working adults are not allowed to share the same kind of housing? Zoning regulations that years ago were established to define the character of “neighborhoods” or “zones,” have become, at best, an unintended impediment to new solutions and, at worst, a means of maintaining the status quo and stifling housing and opportunity.

Addison County could consider the policies that forward-looking municipalities across the country are adopting, and then initiate a local conversation about how to leverage smart zoning reforms that ease building restrictions, increase housing supply and meet changing needs and demographics. Here are a few ideas:

•  Eliminate single-family zoning and allow a broader range of housing options like duplexes, multi-family, single room occupancies, boarding houses and tiny home and mobile home communities;

•  Allow higher density and increase opportunities to build on smaller parcels of land;

•  Tap into underutilized land to increase housing options. For example, make it easier for homeowners to add secondary housing, or accessory dwelling units in residential zones, providing much needed housing for single individuals and more diverse housing options for renters in high-cost neighborhoods.

•  Reimagine zones that prohibit or greatly restrict housing, such as, Industrial, Agricultural, and Forest zones.

•  Speed up the project approval process, including streamlining review for infill housing and other projects that comply with existing, voter-approved community plans. For example, compliance with local plans could be considered presumptive compliance with state land use permits.

•  Adopt inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to set aside a share of apartments that are affordable to households at different income bands.

•  Tap into municipal and other public land to give affordable housing providers a “first look.”

•  Ask colleges and other entities currently exempt from paying property taxes within a community to become a greater part of the solution. For example, these landowners could be asked to give affordable housing a “first look” when selling or changing land use on their properties. Or they could be required to provide land for affordable housing when applying for new development projects, especially when the project will place more pressure on the housing market.

What are we really trying to protect with our current zoning regulations and Act 250 criteria? What are our real community values? Zoning regulations enacted years ago may not reflect the social and financial conditions our communities face today. Zoning that made sense in a more bucolic time may need to be revisited. Zoning regulations should consider that people can work from home, that “family units” have changed, that local employers need nearby housing options to attract employees.

We often hear the argument from the income-secure that we cannot afford to compromise our environmental or community values. Perhaps it’s time to ask the homeless, the farmworker, the young family looking for their first home, the working person who can’t afford a decent home: “What matters most to you?”

Paul Ralston

New Haven

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