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New Campaign Hopes To Add 3,500 Homes In Chittenden County Over Next 5 Years

Peter Hirschfield
Charlie Baker, executive director of the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, is part of a new coalition that will try to bring about the construction of 3,500 housing units in Chittenden county over the next five years.

Anyone looking for a place to live in a Chittenden County downtown knows the rents tend to be steep and the housing prices high. Officials say the housing crunch is hurting economic development in the region, and a new coalition wants to build its way out of the problem.

Kevin Dorn, the manager for the city of South Burlington, says he hears an all-too-common refrain: “’I’d love to live here, but the housing is too expensive,’ or, ‘I have a job here but I have to travel an hour away to find a place to live.’”

Dawn Francis, the town manager in Colchester, is grappling with the same problem. “We need additional housing of all different affordability levels in order to attract a quality workforce here,” she says.

Dorn, Francis and other municipal officials are among the 100 people who have signed on to a new campaign called “Building Homes Together.” Collectively, they’ll attempt to pull the policy levers necessary to bring about the construction of 3,500 homes in Chittenden County over the next five years.

“Building more homes together is fundamental to improving our community,” says Charlie Baker, executive director of the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. The idea is to concentrate new housing in the downtown centers near schools, public transit services, shopping centers and major employers.

Over the past five years, the county has seen about 450 new housing units come online annually. “We’re not addressing the underlying housing market and the affordability of housing in our region,” Baker says.

"This is about 1,000 little decisions, and being at the DRB meeting, being at the planning commission meeting, being at the select board meeting." — Charlie Baker, executive director, Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission

Baker says upping the figure to 700 units a year, and making sure they’re within financial reach of low- and middle-income workers, will help rectify the housing imbalance. And with more than 80 percent of Chittenden County business citing lack of housing as a key barrier to hiring and growing, officials say the region’s economy depends on it.

Baker says the Building Homes Together campaign isn’t about one or two major initiatives. “This is about 1,000 little decisions, and being at the DRB [design review board] meeting, being at the planning commission meeting, being at the select board meeting,” Baker says.

Officials say some of the hurdles to development are regulatory in nature. Baker, for instance, says pushback from neighbors is decreasing the size of high-density housing developments that might otherwise begin to relieve the pressure on the market.

But it’s about money, too. Colchester town manager Dawn Francis says portions of Colchester are primed for more housing.

“But we do need infrastructure such as water and sewer to support additional housing, or conversion of housing that is now seasonal camps to permanent housing,” Francis says.

Brenda Torpy, the CEO of Champlain Housing Trust, says upping the affordable housing stock will require financial commitments from lawmakers.

“We have a shortage of resources and capital investment,” Torpy says.

Members of the new coalition say intervening in the permitting process, advocating for public investments and planning across municipal lines will help advance the housing agenda.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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