After widespread outcry, Vt. lawmakers plan to extend emergency housing program
Democratic leaders in the Vermont Legislature are drafting a supplemental funding bill that would extend housing supports for the more than 1,000 low-income households that are set to lose their motel rooms at the end of June.
Since the Legislature adjourned last month, according to Brattleboro Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, the negative consequences of an abrupt end to the emergency motel housing program have come into clearer focus.
Kornheiser, who chairs the House Committee on Ways and Means, said Tuesday that she and other leaders in the House and Senate have begun drafting legislation that would expand housing supports for people with disabilities, households with children, and people over the age of 62.
“It’s strengthening collaboration and accountability to ensure that folks staying in the motel programs under the emergency housing program right now have an opportunity to engage in suitable services and beds that meet their needs,” Kornheiser said.
"Since the Legislature has recessed, it’s become clear to a lot of folks that the administration needs more support to be getting this done, and our individual communities also need some more flexibility and more resources to be doing that.”Brattleboro Rep. Emilie Kornheiser
The move follows widespread criticism of the decision by Republican Gov. Phil Scott and the Democratically controlled Legislature to allow the motel housing program to wind down dramatically this summer. And it comes as advocates warn of a mass unsheltering of vulnerable Vermonters who may end up living outside after they lose access to motel housing.
The federal funding that had supported the program since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic has expired, and Scott and Democratic leaders said the state lacked the financial capacity to keep it going.
That calculus has shifted in recent weeks. Kornheiser said legislators previously had confidence in the Scott administration’s ability to transition vulnerable Vermonters into alternative housing options.
“And since the Legislature has recessed, it’s become clear to a lot of folks that the administration needs more support to be getting this done, and our individual communities also need some more flexibility and more resources to be doing that,” she said.
Lawmakers will hold a vote on the legislation, which is still being finalized, during their veto session next week. And Democratic leaders hope the bill will pave the way for an override of Scott’s veto of the state budget.
A coalition of Democratic and Progressive lawmakers in the House has been arguing since last month that the budget needed more money to extend the motel housing program. And they’d planned to sustain Scott’s veto of the state budget as a way to compel leadership to increase funding.
A member of that coalition said Tuesday that it’s too early to say whether the proposal being negotiated by Kornheiser and other leaders will be sufficient to win the coalition’s support.
“The devil will be in the details,” they said.
Kornheiser said lawmakers haven’t settled on a final appropriation for the bill. The legislation would not restore motel eligibility for the approximately 800 households that were exited from their motel rooms on May 31. Kornheiser said appropriations in the budget approved by lawmakers last month should be sufficient to address the needs of that population.
“I think those resources, when they are used in communities, whether that’s expanded shelter capacity, or expanded day services, I think those will serve folks who might have left the motel program earlier,” Kornheiser said.
Kornheiser said the new funding won’t necessarily be for motels alone. And she said the Legislature wants to give the Agency of Human Services flexibility to use the money for a variety of housing options for people at risk of homelessness.
The legislation will direct the administration to negotiate lower monthly rates with motel owners. And Kornheiser said the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee will hold regular meetings between now and the next legislative session to monitor the situation, “so that we can move through this process in a way that is coordinated and is making sure that services match with need.”
Kornheiser said the Legislature plans to invite the Scott administration the help draft the supplemental funding plan.
A spokesperson for the governor said Tuesday that Scott hasn't seen details of the plan, but that he expects to meet with House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth this week.
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