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Hoping to boost housing stock, Vt. lawmakers go after zoning rules

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Vermont will need an additional 35,000 to 45,000 housing units by 2030 in order to bring the supply in line with demand, according to a recent estimate by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate are taking aim at municipal zoning ordinances that they blame for slowing the pace of affordable housing development in Vermont.

Bills introduced in both chambers of the Legislature would require towns and cities to allow for up to five units per acre in downtowns and village centers already served by sewer and water. Lawmakers also want to require municipalities to allow construction of multi-family units, such as duplexes and quadriplexes, in places where local zoning already allows for single-family dwellings.

“The key thing that it does at the highest level is require increased density in downtowns, and areas with sewer and water,” said Manchester Rep. Seth Bongartz, who’s been working over the past year to build consensus on the House’s zoning and permit reform bill.

Analysts at the Vermont House Finance Agency now estimate that Vermont will need an additional 35,000 to 45,000 housing units by 2030 in order to bring supply in line with demand.

Elected officials have allocated $250 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money to jumpstart that construction. But Maura Collins, executive director of VHFA, said financial resources alone won’t solve the problem.

“Building tens of thousands of homes through straight government appropriations is likely impossible,” Collins said. “And that’s why it’s so important that we don’t just look at straight government subsidized investments into housing, but we also look at planning and zoning and making housing more affordable through ways other than just appropriations.”

Bongartz said Vermont doesn’t have time to wait for municipal zoning boards to undertake reforms on their own. And he said regulations crafted at a time when policymakers were rightly concerned about over development are now contributing to the housing crunch.

“When municipalities have kind of holdover ordinances, if you will, from the '50s and '60s and even the '80s, that require large lots or low density in downtowns, it has the effect of keeping low- and moderate-income people from being able to live there,” Bongartz said.

“We do still have to recognize that having a lack of entry homeownership opportunities into the market has that kind of impact on the ability of Black families and particularly new Americans to purchase their home."
Chittenden County Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale

Chittenden County Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale said barriers to high-density housing exact a disproportionate toll on BIPOC Vermonters.

“Vermont has the fifth largest racial homeownership gap in the country. About 72% of white Vermont families own homes, which squares with the national average,” Ram Hinsdale said. “But just 21% of Black families own homes in Vermont, which is quite low.”

Those statistics come from U.S. Census data, which show that nearly 250,000 homes in Vermont are owned by white families; the number of homes owned by Black families is fewer than 2,500.

Ram Hinsdale said owning “a slice” of a property — a unit in a townhouse for example, or half of a duplex — is often the most viable path to building wealth through homeownership. And she said local zoning ordinances, as currently written, often discourage that kind of development.

Ram Hinsdale said she’ll also pursue more funding for a first-generation homebuyer incentive program.

“We do still have to recognize that having a lack of entry homeownership opportunities into the market has that kind of impact on the ability of Black families, and particularly new Americans, to purchase their home,” she said.

In his inaugural address earlier this month, Gov. Phil Scott called on lawmakers to undertake a broad review of the zoning and permitting regulations that he blames for impeding development of housing across Vermont.

Scott’s commissioner of housing and community development, Josh Hanford, called the House and Senate bills “a good start.”

“Zoning and land-use regulations tend to add expensive barriers to building housing that is affordable for most folks,” Hanford said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Hanford, however, said it’ll also be important for lawmakers to consider changes to Act 250, the law that governs development at the state level.

Act 250, for instance, is triggered when 10 housing units are constructed within five miles of each other inside a five-year period. Hanford said provisions such as that one have the effect of discouraging compact development in downtowns and village centers best suited to accommodate higher-density projects.

“What it does is it promotes development where we have infrastructure."
Brian Shupe, Vermont Natural Resources Council

“That’s clearly put to limit housing development, and when we have a housing crisis, that seems like something we should come back and revisit,” Hanford said.

Some lawmakers don’t want to tweak Act 250 unless it’s part of a wholesale reimagining of the state’s landmark land-use law.

Ran Hinsdale, however, said she’s willing to consider surgical changes to the existing law independent of a more comprehensive overhaul.

“It’s my belief… that we can’t ask our towns to do all the heavy lifting without the state recognizing that we have duplicative processes, as well, in our permitting and regulation system,” she said.

Proposed changes in the House bill have won support from environmental protection organizations such as the Vermont Natural Resources Council, where executive director Brian Shupe acknowledges that Vermont’s housing crunch will likely require some regulatory reforms.

“What it does is it promotes development where we have infrastructure,” Shupe said of the House bill introduced by Bongartz.

“It promotes density in those areas, but it also provides some safeguards for communities to protect natural resources, like the river corridors and wetlands, and to guide the development so that it respects and protects the character of those communities.”

Shupe said a provision in the bill that allows local review boards to limit development in areas that would impact natural resources was especially important to VNRC.

He said VNRC will be on guard for any proposed revisions to Act 250, which he said would be of far greater concern to environmental watchdogs.

"We feel as though that’s a misguided approach,” Shupe said. “And this (bill) focuses really on the more relevant land-use regulation that affect development, and that’s local zoning.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld:

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Saturday and Weekend Edition Sunday.
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