Op/Ed

Living Together: More housing is key to our future

ELISE SHANBACKER

Seventh in a series

Freddi Mitchell is a student at Middlebury College, and Elise Shanbacker is executive director of Addison Housing Works, Addison County’s nonprofit housing organization.

In the spirit of the Living Together series, we cannot live together unless there are homes for people to live in. The root cause of the housing crisis nationally, and in our backyard as well, is an insufficient supply of housing. Addison County is not immune to the crisis plaguing our nation that may seem like a “big city” problem. As we see the emergence of a tent village underneath the Cross Street Bridge in Middlebury, and with area shelters filled to their limits, the crisis is apparent. Let’s explore our community’s supply-side problems, promote supply-oriented policies and confront the backlash to such policies and solutions.

Recently the Urban Institute underscored the importance of addressing housing supply to bring down costs and end the crisis. Factors such as short-term rentals, mortgage costs and institutional investors are often scapegoated in the media, but none of them fundamentally changes the imbalance of supply vs. demand. The report concludes that “[t]he only solution to the supply shortage is more supply.” The Urban Institute argues that, given the laws of supply and demand, simply increasing the supply of housing will lead to lower housing costs across the board because the greater the number of housing units available, the more competition can drive prices downward. The Vermont Housing Finance Agency says to meet expected demand and normalize historically low vacancy rates, Vermont needs 30,000-40,000 more year-round homes by 2030, adding 5,000 to 6,700 more homes to our primary home market each year, well above the 2,100 homes the state has been generating.

Addison Housing Works (AHW) provides subsidized rental housing, manufactured housing communities, and shared equity homeownership assistance to residents of Addison County. In its January newsletter, AHW highlighted challenges inhibiting our work. Single-family homes below the price limit of $300,000 for the Shared-Equity Homeownership Program have become increasingly difficult to find in Addison County. And the lack of available building sites for multifamily residential communities inhibits our ability to supply affordable rental housing throughout our community.

We understand that increasing the supply of housing in our community will not only make finding a home more within reach for our most vulnerable members; it will make it easier for healthcare workers, teachers, college faculty and staff, and other workforce members to find homes. If we want our communities to flourish for decades to come, we must act now to increase our housing supply to provide homes to the young people we need to keep our future economy thriving.

FREDDI MITCHELL

How can we do this? On a policy level, we must push for state and federal governments to make supply-side solutions a priority. The federal government is incentivizing local and state governments to relax permitting and zoning regulations to increase housing supply given the constraints of land supply. We must encourage increased density of new housing (building up, not out, which the state of Vermont is encouraging) to create more units in town centers where infrastructure exists. It means pushing the federal government to drastically increase the availability of the low income housing tax credit (LIHTC), the subsidy without which construction of affordable housing is impossible. And it means pushing for increases in federal subsidies for more housing choice vouchers, and more subsidies for middle-income homes to own or rent.

While increasing the supply of homes may seem like a simple fix to some, many from within our communities object to this solution. In a Jan. 25 letter to the editor in this publication, one county resident cited traffic and infrastructure problems in urging caution about building new homes. We argue that smart planning goals can be achieved while also reducing barriers to development. Boosting housing development goes hand in hand with our traffic and infrastructure issues. Allowing more people to live near where they work reduces commuter traffic, and adding ratepayers to water and wastewater systems broadens the base for public bonds critical for adequate investments in maintaining our infrastructure.

The world’s climate crisis is of major importance to Vermonters, and rightfully so. In the spirit of being environmentally friendly, certain Vermonters oppose the development of more affordable homes, fearing that the increase will destroy protected lands or contribute negatively to our state’s carbon footprint. Our answer to these arguments is that solving the housing and climate crises facing our state are not mutually exclusive. We are not arguing for the development of the Green Mountain National Forest or agricultural lands. We believe in the conscious development of housing that meets the needs of all community members, while encouraging density in town centers, which reduces each individual’s carbon footprint. Furthermore, the housing crisis is an environmental justice issue. Our unhoused neighbors are at greater risk from the effects of natural disasters like recent flooding. 

A resistance to change is one theme that unites arguments against increasing the supply of affordable homes. While it is important to uphold Vermont values for generations to come, developing affordable housing here will not dramatically change the makeup of our community. Middlebury College Professor Gary Winslett shares a stunning fact in a February 2023 article, “If, by some miracle, we expanded our housing supply sufficiently and grew our population by 10% we’d have about the same (population) density as West Virginia. We could literally double the population of this state and still be less dense than Tennessee.” Increasing our housing supply is not going to turn Addison County into the suburbs of New Jersey.

An adequate supply of affordable homes creates a stronger community — economically, culturally, environmentally — where future generations want and can afford to live. And we can treat our unhoused community members with the dignity and respect they deserve with more available affordable units.

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