Homes for All Toolkit - April 11, 2024

Chairman Stevens introduced Chris Cochran (Director of Community Planning Revitalization, Department of Housing and Community Development) on Thursday morning, stating that he has relied on him for many years. Cochran agreed that they have a good working relationship.

He promised that he did not come asking for money. He commented that recently “Vermont has been a little too precious” about change and growth. He shared details about the ‘Homes for All Toolkit’ which looked for ways to simplify the process, build smaller scale homes along with the necessary infrastructure to support them. The program targets small scale home builders, investors, and community supports.

The program is designed to provide a policy, design, and development foundation to encourage the creation of more diverse housing typologies in Vermont that meet housing needs.

He noted that they are in the initial phase of a multi-year program and over two hundred people attended their kickoff summit. One of the advantages of this is that it gives smaller homebuilders ways to network.

Stevens mentioned the infrastructure issues he knows about as he “lives in a town that floods” where are the water and sewer infrastructure is impacted. He appreciates that this work has helped untangle the rules and programs that Waterbury has needed.

NOTE: At least one small developer who is familiar with this program called the product “well developed, comprehensive and detailed.”

Stevens agreed that the toolkit does certain things well, but also wanted to know what if at all they researched and calculated the “affordability” for Vermont markets. Amy Tomasso (Community Planning & Project Manager, Department of Housing and Community Development) pointed to documents available on their website that highlight potential values for rental and resale. Example.

Seth Leonard (Managing Director Community Development, Vermont Housing Finance Agency) spoke next, highlighting that financial assistance is not enough; this type of guidance and technical assistance is important too in promoting housing. He pointed out that in the past the only way you could get 200 people to gather to talk about housing was to propose a big development and they would turn out to oppose it.

Stevens brought up inflationary costs, noting that mortgage have doubled since Covid and the materials costs drove developer margins into the ground. He wondered how they could address the “cost of money” issue.

Leonard responded that the entire market is always responsive depending on what the available inputs & outputs are. The demand side has been outsized and homebuilders have to respond to what can get across the finish line. Middle income price points have evaporated and meanwhile average per sq. ft. has been $291 on new rental construction, homeownership is averaging $325, and “affordable units” coming in at averages exceeding $400 per sq. ft. See written testimony.

Interest rates are now at 8% and that has reduced borrowing capacity by 35%. Interest rates are making the numbers “very difficult to work,” he noted.


Jeff Lubell (Principal Associate for Housing and Asset Building, ABT Associates) presented next, proposing a new designation he called “Workforce Housing Zones” that would be in “close proximity to the largest job centers.”

He believes this new designation would Increase Housing supply where demand is highest (near job centers), facilitate economic growth, and ensure that workers have a place to live.

His second recommendation was an off-site construction processor assistance plan to develop state supported processors (pre-fab builders) within regional markets and to offset some initial risks to investors in these facilities.

NOTE: The idea here being that pre-fab homes, either partial or full factory construction, can be done quickly and efficiently. Possibly allowing for reduced costs.

His concept would be a revolving purchase fund that would leverage some $3.0M in new state dollars, along with $25M in VHFA funds to institute bulk purchase agreements that would result in a pre-purchase outlay for new construction.

The ideas were well received, however Stevens explained that this late in the legislative session it would be difficult to get anything done this year.

Representative Chesnut-Tangerman raised the point that prefab of “any quality” actually ends up costing perhaps the same and so savings may not be there. Lubell responded that the point here is to have a government assisted way to achieve economies of scale and the need for a limited scope of product designs. He believes the economies of scale may be there at factory levels where perhaps as few as only one model with several variations is produced. He thinks the costs will “drop drastically” if they stick to this and pre-purchase several hundred base units to begin the line.

Jan van Eck (Managing Director, DJ Engineering) agreed, stressing they take a hard look at European systems where much of the small home construction is prefab and finished at factory for delivery. He is setting up a prototype plant in Maine for pre-fab roof structures.

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