Vermonters have housing in mind ahead of Town Meeting Day
Analysts at the Vermont House Finance Agency 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.
This Town Meeting Day a swath of communities across Vermont will discuss and vote on proposals that could create more housing at a local level or change housing policy. Towns will vote on zoning changes, landlord-tenant rights and housing infrastructure, among other issues.
It comes as a number of bills move through the Legislature that also aim to address aspects of Vermont’s housing crisis.
Vermont Public’s Jenn Jarecki spoke with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman about some of the local measures. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jenn Jarecki: How big of a topic do you expect housing to be at town meeting sites across Vermont?
Howard Weiss-Tisman: It does seem to be something that people want to talk about this year. You know, every year at town meeting, there are issues that seem to show up around the state, either through coordinated efforts or just because they're on people's minds — things like social justice, green energy school consolidation. And we're seeing it a lot this year, that housing seems to be an issue people want to talk about here in 2023.
How are towns actually thinking about addressing the issue?
The most organized housing initiative, if you will, it's being led by a group called Rights and Democracy, and they've helped three towns get a Just Cause Eviction question onto their Town Meeting Day ballot.
So voters in Brattleboro, Winooski and Essex will be considering this issue and what it does it establishes rules under which landlords must follow before evicting a tenant.
Supporters are calling this a reasonable reaction to the housing crisis. It protects folks who already have housing from being evicted so that a landlord can so easily raise the rent or take the property off the market to turn it into short-term housing.
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Landlord groups, however, fighting this pretty hard. They say it's unfair. They say it can make it hard to evict someone who's dealing drugs or making a mess on the property.
Here's what Hugh Barber, a longtime landlord in Brattleboro, said at a recent public hearing:
"I realize it's a difficult market, and I feel bad for people that they may lose their homes, but we're running a business," he said. "We've spent hundreds of thousands dollars on fire code issues, sprinklers and all that. We can't afford to have big disruptions in rental revenue and still run these places in a manner that they have grown to expect."
Now in each of these towns a yes vote would lead to a charter change that would make it harder for landlords to evict tenants. And if the Town Meeting Day article passes, then each community has to hammer out the details then get the Legislature and the governor to sign off on the charter changes.
OK. So it sounds like some towns are addressing the housing crunch through their rental codes. But Howard, what about zoning? That's a local issue, right?
Yeah, it's a local issue. And town meeting, you know, is traditionally a place to talk about the town plan and talk about what the planning commission has been up to, but we're definitely seeing more passion and interest in that this year. It's really interesting because it's not really so cut and dry when you look at what towns are talking about this year.
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In South Hero, they are two town meeting day questions that would limit development. So South Hero made some changes recently that extend two development zones and supporters say that that could lead to more housing, but some folks are pushing back on that. They say that these changes threaten the town's rural character. And so they have two Town Meeting Day articles that would make those development zones smaller, and that probably means less new housing.
Middlesex and Monkton are voting on proposed changes to their zoning regs. Monkton officials say the regs will promote affordable housing while also protecting farmland and open spaces.
And in Shaftsbury, it's really interesting. They have five different proposed changes to their zoning regs. Residents there are being asked to vote on each one individually. They deal with things like open spaces and clarifies the definition of mobile homes and tiny homes, and it makes it easier to develop accessory dwellings on barns and outbuildings.
Chris Williams is the chairman of the Shaftsbury Planning Commission. This is what he told me:
"We have a housing crisis. And you know, the construction industry has really focused on building trophy homes for rich people," he said. "But at the same time, you know, people who keep Vermont running are coming up short of a good place to live."
So all of these proposed zoning changes, which seek to expand and in some cases limit more housing development, should lead to some good Town Meeting Day debates.
And what about town elections? A lot of select board seats get filled on Town Meeting Day. Are housing issues coming up a lot among candidates.
Yeah, it really is. You know, when you read through the newspapers and you see what the candidates are saying, people are talking about bringing more younger folks to town and workforce issues and a lot of candidates are talking about housing.
But again, like the earlier zoning debate we talked about it's it's not all about promoting more housing.
In Williston, for example, there's a race between a candidate who opposed the recent planning commission decision to subdivide a piece of land to spur development. And his opponent supported the zoning change. And she's running on that to some extent, saying that she'd support additional housing.
So in the local select board races, that's one way voters will have a say on that question of more development versus more controlled growth.
So, we've hit on most of the big housing policies we can expect to see across Vermont. Is there any other stuff you've tracked down that's relevant to the conversation on development?
Dorset is considering a non-binding article about forming a housing task force. In Greensboro, there's a question about whether the select board can make zoning changes or if future changes should come before voters at town meeting. And in Andover voters will discuss a non-binding article about zoning, including possible short-term rental regulations.
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So, you know, towns all over the state are kind of dealing with this. And, you know, there are also a lot of votes across the state about using federal COVID relief money. Towns have tens of millions of dollars to spend. A lot of that is for water and wastewater projects, and those projects are tied to housing. You know, towns can only expand housing if they have the infrastructure in place, and these ARPA projects are one way to make sure development can happen.
So all in all, I think there's gonna be a lot of debate in Vermont about how towns can encourage housing while protecting open land and managing growth.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.