HomeShare VT's outgoing executive director reflects on 23-year tenure, the state of Vermont housing
It’s no secret Vermont has a severe housing shortage.
And over the last 23 years, Kirby Dunn has been there to observe it, as executive director of HomeShare Vermont. It’s like a dating service for roommates, where one person shares their home in exchange for rent, help around the house, or a combination of the two.
Today, Dunn is retiring from her post with HomeShare.
She spoke with Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch about nonprofit and how the housing market has changed during her tenure. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Williams Engisch: Well, congratulations, first of all, on your tenure at HomeShare Vermont. We've given sort of a description of the group in the introduction, but how do you tell people what HomeShare Vermont is?
Kirby Dunn: Yeah, HomeShare Vermont is a nonprofit organization, and we provide a screening and matching service to help people who are looking for housing and helping other people who have a home to share.
So it's really pretty simple concept. It's helping people find housemates or roommates. But what we're trying to do is have it be about something more, you know? About two people wanting to help each other, about companionship, about friendship — and really finding that compatibility that makes sense.
How did the idea come about?
For home sharing, we were one of the first programs in the country. It was a group of senior volunteers actually, who got together through the Retired Senior Volunteer Program many years ago. And they were talking about the need for young people to find a place to live, and the needs of older people who are aging and just need some help around the home or might need some financial assistance. So it really was a homegrown program that was developed from scratch.
I remember those days of hearing, like, of older Vermonters who needed companionship or rides for errands and things like that, and that sort of matching service that HomeShare did. Can you describe though how Vermont's housing market has changed over the time, since 2000 when you started?
Since then, when you look at what the rents are today, you look at the cost of purchasing a home — it's shocking, truly.
And I think Vermont's been great. We have a lot of innovative programs. We're leaders in the country of community land trust models, and home sharing and all sorts of things. So it is a little overwhelming how we're in the place we're in today.
Contextualize that more, too. What kind of urgency are we seeing with housing issues in the present day?
You know, just looking at rents, I think if people have not been in the housing market themselves for a while, it's unbelievable, truly. When a typical small one-bedroom apartment is going for $2,000 — and that's not unusual. So the income that you would need to be able to afford that is very, very high.
So, it's no wonder, I think, that we have the homeless crisis, that we have this highest rates of homelessness since the '80s, when things started to really go south with the cuts in federal programs that we saw back in the early '80s. And it's just gotten worse and worse since then.
How has HomeShare changed over the last 23 years? I know you initially served just one county in Vermont, right? Back in the early days, was it just Chittenden County?
Yes. I mean, when I started, it was the greater Burlington area. But now we're in seven counties. So the Champlain Valley and the Central Vermont area. And our goal is to eventually be able to serve the entire state.
It's a pretty labor-intensive process of what we do. So it needs people and volunteers and staff to be able to do that. So how to set that up and in all parts of the state, and how to afford that is something that we're working on.
Gov. Phil Scott had a press conference this week, and he suggested Act 250 is the biggest obstacle to fixing Vermont's housing situation. That's the state's big land-use and development law, which lawmakers eased restrictions on last year to sort of allow more multifamily homes, more mixed-income developments near downtowns, village centers, things like that. But Gov. Scott wants more of that red tape cut away. Do you think Act 250 is a major obstacle in addressing the housing shortage here and if so, how might you address it?
Yeah, you know, I'm not working in the development side of things. So it's really not my area of expertise, per se. But I live in Chittenden County. And when I look around, and I see all the housing that has been developed over the last decade, it's kind of shocking.
We've lost so many of these huge — you know, all our ag land is gone virtually in Chittenden County. And so, I don't know if just keeping building bigger and more houses is the answer.
One of the things that's happened is, we've built bigger and bigger houses, and there's fewer and fewer people living in them. You know, as a nation, for the first time in human history, the majority of households are one- or two-person households. So we're not the extended family living situation that we used to be.
So our houses have gotten bigger, and there's fewer people living in them. So I think that's a conundrum that we've got to sort of figure out, you know? I think we've got to get a little back to the "small is beautiful" motif and, and think about living within our means — environmentally and also financially.
"Sort of shockingly, we thought it was a housing crisis in 2000. And I think, unfortunately, it's just only gotten worse."Kirby Dunn, HomeShare Vermont
If you stepped down from this role — and were able to become like sort of this, I don't know, all-knowing person who could wave a magic wand to institute any sort of policies that you wanted — what would you do to boost the state's housing stock and also to make sure that Vermonters have comfortable, affordable living situations?
You know, I really don't have I don't have the answer. And I've been focused on home sharing, and really getting people to think about, you know, helping each other as a society. I think that's something that has a lot more potential than what we're seeing. And it takes a real adjustment and lifestyle and thought process to share your home.
I think one of the things that people are surprised about is who we help. And people who share their homes, for instance, this past year, ranged in age from 27 to 98. It's not just for an aging population; it can be for a younger population. It could be a single mom that's coming out of a divorce, and now has a home payment that is hard to sustain on one income instead of two.
You know, the housing problem seemed like: you build more housing that's affordable, bring more subsidies to the table, more home sharing, helping people stay in their homes where they want to be. It seemed like we're all right on that path. And the solutions did seem simple and clear cut. And maybe that's just a little more youthful hopefulness than the way it feels today.
Home sharing is certainly not the solution to the housing crisis. But it could be one small piece of the answer. It's more pertinent today than maybe it was 20 or 30 years ago.
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