Scott administration proposes slate of new emergency shelters
This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.
As the COVID-era motel housing program nears its end in April, Agency of Human Services officials have shared their vision for accommodating the hundreds of households who will lose their shelter: by standing up a slate of new emergency shelters, fast.
“We are going to propose to establish emergency shelters for those still in hotels at the end of the current program this spring,” Department for Children and Families Commissioner Chris Winters told lawmakers at a Joint Fiscal Committee meeting on Tuesday. “It’s a costly and it’s a temporary measure, but it does represent a critical step toward a more sustainable solution.”
Lawmakers said they appreciated the sense of urgency around finding a solution to the end of the pandemic-era shelter program. But they expressed some concern over the prospect of setting up so many new shelters at once, when they often face community opposition, and require service providers to staff them.
“If you’re talking about April 1, we’ve got to think about, how do we streamline this?” said Sen. Richard Westman, a Republican representing the Lamoille District.
Winters acknowledged that establishing multiple shelters under such a tight timeline would be a tall task, and would require local buy-in and additional funding from the Legislature in the new year, though he declined to provide a cost estimate after the meeting.
He framed the plan as a form of triage. When lawmakers extended the pandemic-era motel program for some households in June, they tasked officials with tracking and reporting the progress of people exiting it. That progress has been slow: A little over 470 households have left the program since July, and more than 800 remain, according to the most recent update provided to lawmakers.
Officials anticipate more people will seek shelter in hotels as the weather gets colder, through a separate and ongoing emergency housing program.
Part of the problem, Winters said, is the lack of available permanent housing.
“Until we have more units, the [emergency shelter] plan is not going to solve the underlying issues – either for the June 30 cohort, or the broader population that’s experiencing homelessness right now,” he said.
The shelter proposal came as part of a broader housing reform pitch from members of Gov. Phil Scott’s administration, who used Tuesday’s meeting to lay out their 2024 legislative priorities to lawmakers.
Their underlying message: While the Legislature has passed historic zoning reforms aimed at encouraging more housing development – and dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to bringing new units online over the last several years – those reforms and investments have not gone far enough to meet Vermont’s acute housing deficit.
Over the last several months, the Agency of Human Services and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development have teamed up to set housing priorities, said ACCD Secretary Lindsay Kurrle.
“The result of our work has convinced us that under current regulatory tax policy and economic conditions that have evolved over many decades, that Vermont cannot solve our pricing or housing crisis at any level for any population by simply nibbling around the edges on this issue,” Kurrle said. “We must be more bold in our actions.”
Alex Farrell, the newly appointed commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development, spelled out a menu of policy tools the governor’s administration wants lawmakers to consider in the new year. Chief among them are further changes to Act 250, Vermont’s decades-old land use law.
Last legislative session, lawmakers carved out exemptions for some housing developments to bypass the Act 250 review process. Farrell suggested that they go further next year, and exempt all housing projects within state-designated development areas from the Act 250 process – and to expand beyond those designation boundaries slightly to allow for housing development outside of floodplains, where many Vermont downtowns are located. He also suggested raising the bar for Act 250 review in areas that already have water and sewer connections.
Farrell recommended that lawmakers look into altering tax policies, such as the trigger for the capital gains tax, which, he said, act as “barriers to investing in housing,” both for new construction and rehabilitation of units that have fallen into disrepair. And he recommended targeting state investments in infrastructure to ease the construction of new housing, including the possibility of a revolving loan fund for municipalities and developers to gain financing for things like new roads.
The officials touted these measures as ways to ease the creation of new housing – which they hope will also ease the state’s homelessness crisis.
“For every day that we wait to build more housing units, is another day that we have to shelter somebody in an untenable situation,” Winters said.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.