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Chittenden County falls short of target to build more housing

A building with green and beige siding and brick exterior
Carly Berlin
VTDigger and Vermont Public
Zephyr Place, an affordable housing development in Williston run by Champlain Housing Trust, on Oct. 23, 2023.

This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.

As Vermonters continue to see rents and home prices rise — as well as increased homelessness — the state’s most populous county continues to lag on building more housing.

Chittenden County gained 594 homes and apartments in 2022, 110 of which are permanently affordable, according to data collected by the county’s regional planning commission. Those tallies fall far short of a goal set by local leaders to build 1,000 new units of housing — a quarter at affordable rates — annually for five years.

That’s according to a recent progress report by the Building Homes Together Campaign, an initiative led by Champlain Housing Trust, Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, and nonprofit developer Evernorth to push for more housing.

The campaign, supported by a host of municipal leaders, state lawmakers and business groups, set a target in 2021 to create 5,000 new rentals and owner-occupied homes — including 1,250 units with permanent income restrictions — by 2025. An initial campaign launched in 2016 to reach 3,500 new homes was eclipsed in 2021.

Now two years into the latest push, the county has hit 75% of the target for new housing overall for 2021 and 2022. And it’s only created about half of the affordable homes the campaign aimed to build.

A man speaks at a podium in front of a brick building with three other people standing behind
Carly Berlin
VTDigger and Vermont Public
Michael Monte, CEO of Champlain Housing Trust, speaks at a press conference on Chittenden County housing production at Zephyr Place in Williston on Oct. 23, 2023.

“We need to do more, and we need to do it faster,” said Michael Monte, CEO of Champlain Housing Trust, at a press conference held in Williston on Monday to mark the report’s release.

The total of 594 new homes in 2022 includes the creation of 358 multifamily homes, 221 single family homes, and 32 accessory dwelling units. It also accounts for the demolition of 17 homes.

High interest rates and construction costs have slowed new development, Monte said. As inflation has increased the price of materials and labor, the cost of new multiunit construction in the county has climbed to between $400,000 and $500,000 per apartment, according to the report.

Others pointed to regulatory barriers standing in the way of new housing, using the occasion to make another pitch for state-level changes. While the Legislature passed the historic HOME Act earlier this year — which encourages increased residential density — it focused largely on municipal rules, said Charlie Baker, executive director of the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.

“One of the unfinished parts of the legislative work is to go back in 2024 and address the regulatory barriers to more housing that exist at the state level, specifically Act 250,” Baker said, referring to Vermont’s decades-old land-use law.

Housing leaders also made a plea for more state funding, particularly for affordable homes. The state has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in housing in recent years, but advocates say still more is needed.

“We need to sustain that level of investment over several — if not many — more years, because there’s a lot more work to be done,” said Nancy Owens, president of Evernorth.

Two construction workers stand in a lift to work on the exterior of an apartment building under construction
April McCullum
Vermont Public
New apartments under construction at the Catamount Run housing project on South Burlington's Market Street on Oct. 11, 2023.

As housing remains scarce, demand remains high. Chittenden County’s rental vacancy rate has hovered at or below 1% since June 2021, while housing experts generally say a 3-5% vacancy rate indicates a healthy market, according to the report. The waitlist for federal housing vouchers through the Burlington Housing Authority is nearly 1,700 households long, according to the report.

That scarcity poses a wide range of problems, from employers struggling to find housing for their workers, to more and more people entering homelessness, Owens said.

“This campaign is continuing to ask that we turn toward the people in need, that we dedicate more funds to housing, that we make it more simple to build that housing, and we expedite the processes so that we can welcome people and buildings into our communities so that life can be better for all of us,” she said.

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Corrected: October 24, 2023 at 10:01 AM EDT
Correction: A photo published with an earlier version of this story misidentified a housing development.
Carly covers housing and infrastructure for Vermont Public and VTDigger and is a corps member with the national journalism nonprofit Report for America.
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