‘Can’t we just buy them?’ The future of Vermont’s motel housing program
Pandemic-era funds used to shelter people at motels have dried up. But the need for emergency housing in Vermont has not.
Brave Little State is Vermont Public’s listener-driven journalism show. In each episode, we answer a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience. Today, Liam Elder-Connors answers a question from Daniel Luttrel, who grew up in Bethel:
“What would the impact be if the state were to purchase, instead of renting, the motels being used to house people experiencing homelessness?”
Reporter Liam Elder-Connors digs into Vermont’s motel housing program, and learns that Daniel’s question has been asked by everyone from housing advocates to those in charge of the motel program itself. He also meets current and former motel residents to get a better sense of the impact this program has had on one of Vermont’s most vulnerable populations.
Note: Our show is made for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio provided here. But we also provide a written version of the episode below.
Liam Elder-Connors: It's a warm, muggy morning in early August when I meet up with Michael Ruggles. We’re in downtown St. Johnsbury, at the welcome center.
Liam Elder-Connors: Yeah, well let’s get walking. I’m all ready to roll.
Michael Ruggles: Sure, sure, sure.
Liam Elder-Connors: We head down to some trails on the banks of the Passumpsic River. It’s a place where people experiencing homelessness often pitch tents — which is something Michael knows first hand.
Michael Ruggles: There is a spot down by the river that, in fact, I put my tent there when I first got into St. Johnsbury. (laughter)
Liam Elder-Connors: How long ago was that?
Michael Ruggles: Well, right at the beginning of the pandemic.
Liam Elder-Connors: Michael grew up in East Haven — a small town in Essex County with a population of about 200. He lived in a place called Lost Nation, which Michael says was a hippie community.
Michael says he loved growing up there. But his father had a temper. So, when he was 18, he joined the military.
Michael Ruggles: It was mostly a way to get the hell out. But that was the wrong reasons to go into the military.
Well, I should have known immediately, because I went from a place where someone was screaming in my face all the time, to a place where someone was screaming in my face all the time. (laughter)
Liam Elder-Connors: Michael left the military and was homeless — the first of many times in his life when he didn’t have any permanent shelter.
Michael Ruggles: It's been a series of couch surfing and staying with friends, and it's been kind of a recurring theme.
Liam Elder-Connors: Right before the pandemic, Michael was going to school at Lyndon State College — now called Northern Vermont University — when his money ran out. He lost his dormitory housing and ended up sleeping in his car.
Eventually, he pitched a tent in St. Johnsbury down by the river — pretty close to where we’re standing.
Liam Elder-Connors: How long were you tenting here for?
Michael Ruggles: Only a few days, actually, and then NEKCA got me into the hotel program.
Liam Elder-Connors: NEKCA — that’s Northeast Kingdom Community Action — is an anti-poverty nonprofit in the region. And the hotel program Michael is talking about — that’s a statewide initiative used during the COVID-19 pandemic to shelter Vermont’s homeless population. Basically, the state rented rooms at private hotels and motels for unsheltered Vermonters.
This emergency housing program existed before the pandemic — but it was more limited. People could only stay for a certain number of months per calendar year – usually between one and three, depending on their situation, though the limits were waived during the cold winter months.
When the pandemic hit, the state expanded the program using an influx of federal money. The old rules, limiting how long people could stay, were suspended — turning what had been more of a temporary shelter program into something that felt more permanent.
At the height of the pandemic there were 2,000 households sheltered at motels around Vermont. More than 12,000 people have moved through the program in the past three years — including Michael Ruggles.
He spent about two years at the Fairbanks Inn in St. Johnsbury. A few months ago, he moved out into his own apartment with the help of a local nonprofit.
Michael Ruggles: Mentally, it's a huge relief, just knowing that I have a place to go back to where my stuff is.
Liam Elder-Connors: Not everyone has been so lucky. Vermont is in the midst of an acute housing crisis, and affordable housing is extremely scarce.
At the same time, homelessness has increased. Vermont has the second highest rate of homelessness in the country. And this summer, the federal funds used to operate the expanded motel housing program ran out. So, the state reinstated a version of the original rules that limited how long people could stay in the program.
In June, about 700 people were kicked out.
Liam Elder-Connors. But before more people lost their housing, lawmakers reached a deal: Anyone still in the motel program could stay until April 1, 2024, or until they found alternative living arrangements. That deal wouldn't apply to new people who entered the program.
The legislature will likely debate the future of the motel housing program next year. Which leads us to today's question: Rather than renting out rooms in privately owned motels, could the state just buy the motels instead?
‘Can’t we just buy them?’
Liam Elder-Connors: Today’s winning question-asker is Daniel Luttrel. He grew up in Bethel, went to the University of Vermont and spent about 15 years in Burlington.
And this isn’t the first time we’ve met.
Liam Elder-Connors: Did we talk years ago for a Brave Little State?
Daniel Luttrel: We did. It was the — I was one of like a million people that asked the question — but it was, “Were people leaving? Were young people leaving the state?”
Liam Elder-Connors: Daniel’s currently in Florida for graduate school. But he still keeps an eye on what goes on in his home state — in part, by listening to The Frequency, Vermont Public’s daily news podcast.
Daniel says during the pandemic, he heard a lot about how Vermont was using hotels and motels to shelter people. And he heard the state was using a lot of money to do it.
Daniel Luttrel: Because they're saying, like, “It’s this many millions of dollars per month to run this program.” And in my head, I'm like, “Okay, well, that's probably the cost of one motel, maybe two.” Every time I heard the dollar figure in my head, I was just like, “Can’t we just buy them?”
Liam Elder-Connors: Over the past three years, the state spent about $5.3 million a month on the program. Daniel thought that if the state owned some of the motels, it could do a lot more to expand services for people.
Daniel Luttrel: And somehow the state could, like, officially manage this program, and maybe have enough social workers, case managers, other social services involved in the program to make it a bridge or a stepping stone for people to get out of, you know, experiencing homelessness. Maybe I'm just dreaming big and being super (laughter) positive and ideological.
Liam Elder-Connors: Daniel’s not the only person thinking about the possibility of buying motels to turn into emergency shelter.
Housing advocates see this as a way to quickly — and permanently — increase the state supply of much needed shelter beds. It might also help address a problem brought up by critics of the current motel housing program, who say that the system outsources the care of some of Vermont’s most vulnerable residents to private businesses, whose incentive first and foremost is to make money.
Other states are already doing this, and it’s been done in Vermont to some extent by nonprofits. And now, the state agency in charge of the motel housing program is actively thinking about this approach.
We’ll get to more of that soon. But first, I wanted to talk to the people who actually live at some of these motels.
‘Hanging in there’
Liam Elder-Connors: In St. Johnsbury I visit the Fairbanks Inn, which houses people through Vermont’s motel housing program. It’s just off of Route 2 on the way into town.
There’s a few residents out back. They’re sitting on benches, smoking. Not everyone wants me to use their names. They’re concerned that it could jeopardize their current housing.
Everyone has their own story, though, for how they ended up here.
Cindy moved to Vermont from Texas to be closer to her kids — but she couldn’t find a house. Megan Knox says she was kicked out of her apartment.
Megan Knox: Like we were evicted nine days before Christmas, from my apartment. Nine days before Christmas.
Liam Elder-Connors: Another woman, who asks not to be named, tells me this was the 16th hotel she and her family have been at in the past year. They recently moved to the Fairbanks Inn after a motel they’d been staying at in Jeffersonville flooded during the July storm.
Unhoused woman: Well, the one isn’t — My youngest, if I decide to, or if I can stay here, he'll have to go to the third school within a year. And he has behavioral issues and he has a lot of trauma.
People who are getting bounced who have mental health issues — it's not good for them.
Liam Elder-Connors: Current and former motel residents have told me that it has been exhausting dealing with the uncertainty of the program — especially this summer, when it looked like the program would end.
Back in July, I met Paula Broe and Krystal Goss. They were living at the Pine Crest Motel in Barton — that’s about 30 miles north of St. Johnsbury.
Liam Elder-Connors: Is there a label that you feel like people are putting on you right now?
Paula Broe: Yes.
Krystal Goss: Yes.
Paula Broe: Absolutely.
Liam Elder-Connors: What label–
Paula Broe: Lazy, I’m just looking for free housing, you know. Like, “Oh, the state’s paying for it. Yay.” No, it’s not like that at all. I can’t find an apartment. I’ve looked.
Liam Elder-Connors: Paula is 60 with dark shoulder-length hair streaked with gray and an eyebrow ring. Krystal is 36. She had her copper colored hair mostly pulled back in a ponytail. When I meet her, she’s wearing a tank top that has a butterfly and the words “be kind” across the middle.
Krystal tells me not knowing if she’d be able to stay in the program is stressful.
Krystal Goss: It kind of makes you feel like you failed, really failed, and continue failing.
Paula Broe: And we didn't get much notice to even be able to find a place.
Krystal Goss: No.
Paula Broe: You know what I mean? It's like, “Well, you got to be out by the first.” “Oh, thank you. Okay.”
Krystal Goss: I'm very thankful, I mean, very grateful—
Paula Broe: I am too.
Krystal Goss: —you know, for what they're doing to help us. I just feel there should be better choices with it.
Liam Elder-Connors: Despite the stress of their situation, or perhaps because of it, the two women have become close friends. They cook dinner together frequently — which is complicated since their rooms at the hotel don’t have kitchens. Instead, the two make do with a variety of small appliances, like microwave ovens, air fryers and griddles.
And they help each other cope.
Paula Broe: It’s really hard to sleep at night.
Krystal Goss: That's the good thing about both of us, too, because we don’t sleep good at night.
Paula Broe: So we stay up all night, talking.
Krystal Goss: Yep. So we stay up talking and watching TV, and–
Liam Elder-Connors: Do you have any favorite TV shows to watch together?
Both: “Hell’s Kitchen.” (laughter)
Liam Elder-Connors: When I first met Paula, she was getting ready to leave the motel — not because she found housing, but because the state changed the program’s rules. She’d have to contribute 30% of her monthly income to help pay for her room.
Paula, who’s on disability, would have to pay $500 a month — and she’d have to move to a smaller room. She says after paying for her housing, her car and food, she wouldn’t have much left.
Liam Elder-Connors: So, it’s been like a month or so. How are you doing?
Paula Broe: Hanging in there. Yeah.
Liam Elder-Connors: Since I last saw Paula, she’d moved into her ex-husband’s place in Orleans. I sat with her on the porch, along with her dog Cujo — a Pomeranian and rat terrier mix.
Paula Broe: You tell him, Cujo.
Liam Elder-Connors: Paula says moving into her ex’s place has been OK — but it’s not ideal. Their dogs don’t get along.
Paula Broe: It's working out.
Liam Elder-Connors: The dogs are doing OK?
Paula Broe: We have to like — we’ll let him out. And then we'll put his dog away for a while, and then we'll put him in the bedroom. I'll go sit with him. And we'll let his — Yeah. Because no, they don't get along.
Liam Elder-Connors: Yeah.
Paula Broe: But we work it out.
Liam Elder-Connors: I reached out to Paula because I wanted to know what she thought about Daniel’s question.
Liam Elder-Connors: Like, what would the impact be if the state were to buy the motels they were renting instead of just renting them? Like, if they just bought them and made them into shelters?
So what do you think about—
Paula Broe: I think that'd be a great idea. I do. I think it would work out a lot better, because they would be handling more than the state saying, “Now you have to do it this way or that way.” And the rules change all the time, and you're complying, but then boom, the next day, they're different. You know? So, it's hard to keep up with them. And I wound up having to move out. You know.
It's been OK. But it was still devastating, a little bit.
Liam Elder-Connors: So, what could a larger scale motel conversion program look like, and what impact might it have? To answer those questions, we’re going to travel nearly 2,900 miles — to Oregon.
Filling in the gaps
Liam Elder-Connors: Vermont had around 500 shelter beds prior to the pandemic, according to the Department for Children and Families. A lot of those beds were in congregate shelters, where people are mostly in one big room. That can be challenging: There isn’t much privacy, and there’s not always a secure place to leave belongings.
When Vermont expanded its use of motels as shelters, all of a sudden people had their own rooms, with locking doors. And for hotel and motel owners, who saw their business dry up when the pandemic hit, renting rooms to the state was a financial lifeline.
But that didn’t mean the motel housing program was perfect.
Mark Hengstler, a staff attorney with Legal Services Vermont, says there are three big issues — and they really came to light once the state expanded its use of the program during the pandemic.
First: a lack of data. Mark says since the state isn’t on the ground at the privately owned motels, it’s hard to know what services people need, or to track outcomes of the program.
Mark Hengstler: I don't think anybody could say, the state being an arm's length-distance away from the population that it's trying to serve is benefited, from a data perspective, by that distance.
Liam Elder-Connors: Mark says health code violations are another problem. From March 2020 to early August, there were 189 health and safety complaints filed, according to records from the state health department. Some of the complaints include bedbug infestations, floors covered with rodent feces and urine, and sewage backing up into rooms.
Mark Hengstler: Hotels consistently appear to be unable to meet the basic health and safety requirements that the state has set.
Liam Elder-Connors: In reporting by other news outlets, hotel owners have blamed the problems on motel residents, or an inability to find contractors to fix issues. According to reporting this year from VTDigger and Seven Days, the state’s response to health code violations at motels has often failed to adequately hold motel owners accountable for poor living conditions.
Mark Hengstler: There are ways to push people by penalizing them to comply with those laws. But it's not the same. It is not the same as the state making decisions on its own and complying with its own rules.
Liam Elder-Connors: The third problem, Mark says, is that people who stay in the motel are limited in their ability to appeal a decision a motel manager makes about their housing.
Mark Hengstler: If I'm at one of the hotels in Vermont, and I don't have a home, and I'm there night to night, and then one day the hotel owner decides, “You know, Mark, I don't really like ya, and I think I want you out right now,” my remedy is that I need to call economic services and say, “Please find me another hotel to stay at tonight.”
Liam Elder-Connors: Mark says these problems boil down to a core tension: that the state government is asking a private company to shelter a very vulnerable population.
Mark Hengstler: The government can take as many precautions and create as many laws as possible in order to try to force private companies to fulfill the obligation of the government to take care of its people. But at the end of the day, the obligations of companies are to make money.
Liam Elder-Connors: Mark couldn’t say whether the state buying up motels would be a good strategy. But other housing advocates, like Anne Sosin, are pushing the approach.
Anne Sosin: It would be really transformative.
Liam Elder-Connors: Anne is a public health practitioner and researcher at Dartmouth College. She says Vermont needs a better plan to address its unhoused population, which has been growing in recent years.
Vermont’s homelessness rate has increased 151% since the start of the pandemic. It’s the second worst rate of homelessness in the country, according to a recent federal study. And this year’s annual point-in-time count found nearly 3,300 Vermonters experiencing homelessness – an increase of 515 compared to 2022.
Anne says converting motels into shelters is an important stopgap solution.
Anne Sosin: It would create a permanent safety net of interim housing, which the state currently lacks, and address the gaping need for a bridge between unsheltered homelessness and permanent housing solutions.
Liam Elder-Connors: Some Vermont nonprofits have done this — buying motels and turning them into housing or shelter. Anne says that’s good, but there needs to be a more concerted — and statewide — effort.
Anne Sosin: We have a lot of evidence about the solutions that work. What we lack right now is political will to translate them into practice in our state.
Liam Elder-Connors: That might be changing.
Chris Winters: We definitely have to rethink the way that we're doing this.
Liam Elder-Connors: Chris Winters is the commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, the agency that runs the motel housing program.
He says that the existing motel program is due for some updates. And that buying and converting motels is an approach that is on the table for his agency.
Chris Winters: I think with some good project planning, there could be a path forward to start getting a lot of this underway, soon.
Liam Elder-Connors: One big reason to buy instead of renting the rooms is the cost. That’s exactly what got our question-asker, Daniel Luttrel, interested in the first place.
While most of the initial $210 million spent on the program was federal money, moving forward Vermont taxpayers will be footing the bill.
Winters says, right now, the state pays motels about $140 a night for a room. That comes to $4,200 a month — nearly double median rent in Burlington.
Chris Winters: So I think we could do it in a more cost effective way by purchasing hotels. And so we want to have those conversations with owners and see who's in the market to sell.
Liam Elder-Connors: Winters acknowledges the problems raised by attorney Mark Hengstler: the habitability issues, lack of data and the due process concerns. And he says if the state owned the motels, it could improve the situation.
Chris Winters: If it was owned by the state, run by the state, run by a community partner, we have some standards that we put on top of those shelters. And we have a lot of resources to make sure that they are acceptable.
Pam Marsh: That's actually a big logjam right now in a lot of communities, is we can get people into shelter, we can put them into Project Turnkey — can we transition them to something after they've stabilized? That is an enduring challenge in many places.
Liam Elder-Connors: When the pandemic hit in 2020, both Vermont and Oregon turned to motels to house people experiencing homelessness. In those early days, though, many people thought that we’d only need to avoid gathering for three or four weeks.
But, as you probably remember, we quickly realized that we'd need to keep social distancing and isolation measures in place for a lot longer.
Pam Marsh: The nonprofits that were doing this work looked at me and said, “We need to buy one of those hotels.”
Liam Elder-Connors: This is Oregon state representative Pam Marsh, a Democrat.
Pam Marsh: Because we'd seen how much it meant for people to be housed, even just for three weeks, to be able to close the door and put their stuff down and start to think about how to pull their lives together.
Liam Elder-Connors: Other organizations around Oregon were starting to think the same thing, so Marsh started working on a proposal. Then, massive wildfires hit Oregon, devastating the area that Marsh represents in the legislature. More than half of the 4,000 housing units lost statewide in the fires were in Marsh’s community.
Pam Marsh: And what that did was really make it much more clear in communities that already had a housing crisis — and now had the loss of units due to wildfire — that there was no time to waste, that the state really needed to step up.
Liam Elder-Connors: Oregon Community Foundation, a nonprofit that runs a number of statewide grants and scholarships, was tapped to administer the program. The group would dole out money for motel conversion projects that were pitched by local municipalities, county governments and nonprofit organizations.
Initially, Oregon lawmakers put $65 million from the state general fund into the initiative — known as Project Turnkey. That initial funding created 865 housing units across 19 shelters, all in under seven months.
After the success of the first round, the Oregon legislature approved another $50 million for Project Turnkey in 2022. That added hundreds more units to the state’s shelter system.
Megan Loeb: The total is 32 properties around the state of Oregon.
Liam Elder-Connors: Megan Loeb is senior program officer with Oregon Community Foundation.
Megan Loeb: They are in 18 counties out of our 36 counties. It is increasing our shelter capacity by about 1,400 units of housing. So this has increased our shelter capacity by 36% in our state.
Liam Elder-Connors: Megan and Marsh, the state rep, say there have been challenges: Sometimes it was hard to find motel owners willing to sell at a reasonable price. Other times, properties weren’t in good enough shape. Sometimes neighbors weren’t happy about the proposals. Zoning also presented a barrier, though the Oregon legislature passed a bill in 2021 to ease zoning regulations around motel to shelter conversions.
And while Project Turnkey did increase shelter capacity, Oregon needs more — and affordable housing units are still scarce, says Rep. Marsh.
A more permanent solution?
Liam Elder-Connors: Housing advocates say turning motels into emergency housing has another benefit: It gives you a structure that could eventually become permanently affordable rental units.
That approach has been used in Vermont.
Liam Elder-Connors: At the very least, you can sort of tell me a little bit, first off, about what we're looking at here.
Michael Monte: Sure. So, this is the second Ho Hum Motel — same owner — we bought one on Shelburne Road a bunch of years ago and converted that for folks who were formerly homeless, actually, folks who were chronically homeless.
Liam Elder-Connors: Michael Monte is the CEO of Champlain Housing Trust. We’re at the site of CHT’s latest motel conversion project. The nonprofit bought the Ho Hum Motel in South Burlington in 2020 to serve as a quarantine spot for homeless Vermonters during the pandemic.
Unlike Oregon’s Project Turnkey — which was focused on creating shelter beds — this CHT project will turn the former motel’s 32 rooms into 20 permanently affordable apartments for people exiting homelessness.
Since the 1990s, there have been 13 motel conversion projects — including the Ho Hum Motel — that have been funded by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board — a quasi-state entity that invests public money into affordable housing development.
And many of the motel projects were done by Champlain Housing Trust.
Liam Elder-Connors: Maybe, do you think we could try to go to show me a little bit.
Michael Monte: Let’s see if anybody yells at us. (laughter)
Liam Elder-Connors: We walk over to one of the buildings where Monte shows me some of the work they’ve done. Basically, the plan is to turn two former motel rooms into one apartment. Monte says to do that, they cut a hole between the two rooms, and use the bathroom plumbing of one room to put in a kitchen.
Michael Monte: And it's just like, boom, there it is. And you know, from a cost perspective, this is so much less expensive than new construction, and a lot quicker, too. So I think that looking at this model as an opportunity to get units online is a smart move.
Liam Elder-Connors: Bob Peters, CHT’s contractor, walks over as we leave the unit.
Michael Monte: It's going OK?
Bob Peters: Yeah it’s going great.
Michael Monte: You going to be done soon?
Liam Elder-Connors: Bob says he’s done a few of these projects for CHT, and it’s pretty straightforward.
Liam Elder-Connors: What are you working on today?
Bob Peters: Everything. Yeah. The outside, because we have no rain for once. So we're trying to get the whole crew here painting. (laughter) No rain for one day. So we're trying to get the painting done.
Liam Elder-Connors: Monte says more motel conversions could be a good way to boost the state’s shelter capacity. But he says there should also be a plan for the long-term use of the facilities — like eventually turning them into apartment units.
Michael Monte: I think the long-term use is really, really critical. I mean, I just think from an investment perspective, because–
Liam Elder-Connors: Another consideration, Monte says, is the cost of running the shelter once you buy it.
Michael Monte: Buying it will reduce the cost. Absolutely. It’s a smart move to be able to do that. But there is then the next step, which is, who's going to pay for the motel stays for the individuals who are there, and who's going to pay for the services?
Liam Elder-Connors: Staffing shelters made from converted motels has been at issue in at least one case.
Anew Place is the nonprofit group that ran Burlington’s low-barrier overnight shelter out of the former Champlain Inn. It announced in May that it would stop operating the shelter this fall due to staffing shortages. Now, two nonprofits will take over: Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity will operate the shelter, while Champlain Housing Trust will own the building and manage the property.
A feeling of solidarity
Liam Elder-Connors: When I asked current and former motel residents what they thought about the state buying the motels, like Daniel suggested, everyone thought it was a good idea. One of the big things I heard was that they thought it might create more consistency and stability — if the state were in charge, all the motels could have the same rules and expectations. One woman said the state should hire residents to work in the shelters.
While I was in St. Johnsbury walking around with Michael Ruggles, I asked him what he thought.
Liam Elder-Connors: What do you think about this idea of the state buying the motels?
Michael Ruggles: I think that's a fantastic idea. I mean, initially, it'll cost them a lot of money. It'll be, you know — people will say, “Oh, why are you spending that much?” But I think in the long run, it'll save money.
Liam Elder-Connors: It’s about more than money, Michael says. It’s tough not having a place to put your stuff, to not have privacy. And it’s even harder to do all that alone, without anyone around who knows what you’re going through. Michael says being in a hotel with others who have the same struggles creates a kind of solidarity.
Michael Ruggles: Because I mean with the hotel program, one of the huge things is people form little pockets of support, you know? You and I get to know each other, and, you know, if we smoke cigarettes, you give me some, I give you some. I help you with food, you know, you get that whole support system in place.
Liam Elder-Connors: Paula Broe and Krystal Goss found that support system living next door to each other at the Pine Crest Motel. Paula, who left the motel, says she’s stayed in touch with Krystal. But it’s been tough.
Paula Broe: Yeah. I got used to just having my friends there and being able to even talk about what's going on with housing — anything, like, I had someone to talk to. Now I don't really have that.
Liam Elder-Connors: Thankfully, she’s still close. So, Paula will get in her red Jeep and make the 15 minute drive so she can stay in touch with the friends, and support, she found at the Pine Crest.
Thanks so much for listening to the show.
Liam Elder-Connors reported this episode, and it was produced by Josh Crane and Sabine Poux. Additional support from Sophie Stephens. Angela Evancie is Brave Little State’s executive producer. Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
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