This week the Senate Economic Development Committee reached the mark-up stage of their Omnibus Housing Bill. There was discussion in the Committee that many local governments in Vermont were unhappy with the duplex by right governing authority that is being taken away in this bill. Barre Town was particularly not pleased. The Chair tried to justify that it was not taking authority from local government but was more dealing with the homeowner. Even so, the Committee believed this was a huge change and expressed concerns.
One issue is that there are no defined terms on sewage and water, but the bill allows private homeowners opportunities to deal with this on their own. The Committee's discussion focused on how nobody wants low-income housing in their area and that is a topic that comes under fire. They also focused on the "fewer cars than bedrooms" issue and made mention that higher parking capacity would force deterioration of buildings. There was no data or evidence provided to support these statements or discussion by the Committee.
Legislative Counsel explained to the Committee that the definition of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) already existed in the state statute definition of public buildings, and that existing law includes rental units, long and short term, and that ADU’s are technically included there.
Section 26 of the bill was also discussed on Wednesday. This section deals with criminal penalties for discrimination and raises the penalty from $1,000 per violation to $10,000. There is no jail time provided in law but other penalties can be sought. The Human Rights Committee can enforce agreements and impose civil penalties and other powers comparable to the Attorney General’s office. There was confusion as to who had enforcement authority in this section, for example, the state attorney’s office or other entity; and legislative counsel said they would review the statute and get back to the Committee on this.
Kathleen Berk (Executive Director, Vermont State Housing Authority) testified to the Committee that there was a specific need to find a compassionate way to house those that need housing. She spoke to Section 37 of the draft bill, stating that it takes $5M to create 20-28 homes. She also urged the Committee to create a Victims Rescue Fund to address domestic abuse.
Maura Collins (Executive Director, Vermont Housing Finance Agency) was up next and proposed changes to the First Homeowner Generation homebuyer definition. She wanted to shift from applicant to homebuyer to require only one attestation. She further requested to remove the three year restriction for other household members’ eligibility and to remove the three year restriction on losing homes to foreclosure, short sales, or deed-in-lieu issues.
Tom Proctor (Housing Justice Organizer, Rights & Democracy) testified next, advocating that just-cause evictions should meet the needs of tenants. He offered no testimony on needs of landlords or landlords in general. He wants equitable access to land and farming for what he calls a "just food system." Testimony was mostly advocacy for Rights and Democracy’s agenda.
On Thursday Senator Ram Hinsdale opened a public hearing (held jointly between the Senate Economic Development Committee and the House General and Housing Committee) with introductions of the Legislators present. She stated that Vermont was the leading state in homelessness. She also went on to say that nationally, Vermont ranked fifth in racial ownership gap. No statistics, sources, or evidence were provided.
Representative Stevens spoke next, saying that $500M for new housing had been invested in Vermont but more was needed to move forward. The Chair stated the need for more housing and tools to develop the building of more housing were needed.
The Hearing then went on to take various testimonies from advocates and former homeless persons on the need for housing. Nancy Sneider explained her senior housing and non profit beneficiary experience. She stated that she wanted to live near her family in Burlington and was a single senior. Rents were high and inventory was low and she waited for two and a half years before being offered an apartment during Covid. She now lives in a modern building and is happy, but doesn't want others to face similar challenges.
Cindy Reid explained how there is a need for development money and funding for affordable housing. There was continued similar testimony from Vermont citizens and advocates of which most spoke of the Burlington or Montpelier area. Most advocates didn’t get into the details of the bill and it wasn’t clear if they understood the details or ramifications of the proposed legislation. Legislators present at the Public Hearing did not address any of the details of the bill either. Most advocates were there to state that there was a need for more housing, but not how or if the bill addressed those needs.
One advocate explained his take on eviction issues in the court system and suggested that changing the notice method to Priority Mail would address certain defenses. Victims further testified that they don’t know if they can qualify for subsidies, but want to live in specific areas. They are not open to living in other areas that may offer such housing, for example if they want to be near their families or networks. One advocate questioned the definition of homelessness since even though she had a place to live she felt homeless.
The Town Manager of Fair Haven testified, saying that they are missing middle-income housing and this needs to be addressed. He expressed support of Tax-Increment Financing as one tool for municipalities to make progress. He stressed they do not need low-income housing but rather less expensive housing that middle-income families can afford.
Other testimony from advocates touched on housing for workers and those with disabilities. Michael Monte (Executive Director, Champlain Housing Trust) testified the policy need for permanent affordability was critical and that there should be more funding for homelessness. Other testimony spoke to absentee short-term rentals that was needed and that there were obstacles to be addressed there.
Little testimony from professionals in the housing or construction sectors appeared to have been solicited or the focus of the testimony elicited for the Hearing. However, a Civil Engineer testified that the bill could not stand alone and that other concepts supporting housing should be incorporated into the legislation.
Legislative Counsel continued walking through the Omnibus Housing Bill with the Senate Economic Development Committee on Friday. Chairwoman Ram Hinsdale expressed that she wants money for mobile home communities in the base budget instead of only at times of crisis. The Governor had just announced funds for mobile homes and that she wanted to do the same in the bill (unclear why). She also wanted a list of appropriations in the bill. Legislative counsel indicated that was being worked on.
Ram Hinsdale said she would like to begin getting sign offs from the Committee on individual sections of the bill as they get ready to finalize things. Senator Brock spoke up, saying that he had concerns about every section in the bill and wanted to be sure that he was on the record stating that.