Sen. Clarkson: Vermont’s housing problem is a health problem

By Sen. Alison Clarkson

The Covid-19 crisis is challenging all of us, but it is particularly challenging for those already at risk in Vermont. “Stay Home, Stay Safe” assumes two things – that you have a home and that it is safe. Sadly, for too many Vermonters this is not the case. And so Vermont’s government, along with its non-profit housing community, has stepped in to provide additional help.

Covid-19 has magnified the need for safe, affordable housing, and Vermont doesn’t have enough of it. In Windsor County we have very low vacancy rates and very expensive rents. Low-income Vermonters are often more vulnerable – not only to the health consequences of this pandemic but to its economic fallout. They have higher levels of underlying health conditions and far less financial security.

At the moment, Vermont has about 1,600 homeless families and individuals being housed in motels and hotels around the state. In the Upper Valley, we have about 120 homeless households, which translates to about 195 individuals (14 of whom are children) being sheltered in five motels in 125 rooms.

To put this in perspective – in a normal winter, the Upper Valley Haven might be sheltering anywhere from 60 to 70 people. In mid-March, the state extended the Motel Voucher Program in response to the Covid-19 crisis. As a result, the Haven was able to meet the demand for housing not just those who were homeless, sheltered and unsheltered, but also those who were housing insecure (i.e. are people who were couch surfing, sleeping in cars or doubling up). The Haven has been the conduit for coordinating this safe housing, helping distribute food and helping secure the support services many of these people need to stabilize their lives.

This pandemic has brought into sharp relief the fact that housing is health care. One of the success stories of this Covid-19 crisis is the fact that by acting swiftly, the housing community (the state with a host of housing and social service non-profits) managed to move the homeless population from congregant housing to motel rooms where they could live safely, maintaining physical distance. As a result, to date, NOT a single homeless person in Vermont has had the coronavirus. This is good news for all of us. In Boston, a third of its homeless population has been sick with Covid-19 , both a tragedy for those falling ill and an infection hot spot putting everyone at greater risk. And, as a further benefit, a number of those Vermonters who were precariously housed have been helped into permanent housing.

We have an opportunity now to act further on what we know – that public health is improved with safe housing. The opportunity to leverage some of the federal Covid-19 financing into permanent housing for Vermonters is a real option. We can expand rental assistance to prevent new people from becoming homeless as the crisis strikes more and more of us. We can house families who have lost their homes in temporary housing or motels. More permanently, we can incentivize rehabilitation of unused houses and the building of new affordable housing. We could buy some of these motels, facing their own financial challenges, and renovate them to house families.

The Affordable Housing Community has created a proposal to invest $106.5 million of the federal Covid-19 money into this work – creating a bridge from homelessness to permanent housing. They propose to spend $70 million to create new housing, and $36.5 million for the next nine months to help prevent future outbreaks of Covid-19 by ensuring safe and healthy homes for more Vermonters.

It anticipates expanding support services to meet the increased needs of these vulnerable populations and builds capacity in the housing community to provide these services. The local jobs created by this housing investment could also play a significant role in Vermont’s economic recovery.

I appreciate hearing from you. I can be reached by email: aclarkson@leg.state.vt.us or by phone at 457-4627. To get more information on the Vermont legislature, click here.

Sen. Alison Clarkson represents the Windsor District in the Vermont General Assembly.

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  1. Kathy Vize says:

    Vermont’s housing problem is a jobs problem. What are you doing to bring decent paying, full time, year round jobs to Vermont which are not seasonal hospitality or minimum wage retail?

    Instead of creating more taxpayer-funded affordable housing which will most likely have rents further subsidized by beleaguered taxpayers, stop paying people to move here. Actively court large corporations.

    Create economic zones in communities such as Rutland — where there are swaths of vacant commercial properties. Within the economic zone there could some minor deviance from Act 250 if the land is largely developed.

    Covid-19 has opened our eyes to the gross amount of manufacturing done in China. Do you want to be on the leading edge? Bring manufacturing back to New England by opening Vermont to that possibility first.

    Jobs lead to housing and food security along with health insurance.

  2. Justin Turco says:

    Senator Clarkson,

    Housing is NOT a health crisis.

    It’s a shortage of money and opportunity in the pockets of Vermonters. You are responsible. You could help right this wrong, but you’re going to need to get on the leading edge of getting this state back to work if you want to do anything that doesn’t pull more people into the quagmire of the state’s corona virus response. In your mind that leading edge is a dangerous place for you to be. It entails YOU and your progressive pals in Montpelier stepping aside so we can go about our lives again. It is us alone who need to be personally responsible for deciding if we need to stay home and or how we might need to protect ourselves. We all get working….those homeless people can start making rent payments or eventually get loans to buy homes that cost less than rent. This run down, played out state has homes all over the place that could be had for a monthly payment LESS than rent. It’s up you Senator Clarkson to put some policies back in place or remove some things that would once again lessen the financial burden by the state for all Vermonters. When YOU lower YOUR spending you pave the way for cutting taxes and fees. One perfect example of your having made things worse for Vermonters is the pay to move to Vermont program. That promotes a housing shortage while driving up expenses. What a horrible idea that was! More government support services and government funded construction of cheap housing only further crushes a vibrant FREE market that helps and rewards EVERYBODY. There are MANY places you could cut costs that would reduce the intense burden your legislative policies inflict on working Vermonters and that is solely where you should place your efforts.

    TAKE YOUR FOOT OFF OF OUR NECKS AND YOUR HAND OUT OF OUR POCKET AND LET VERMONTERS THRIVE.

  3. Justin Turco says:

    Senator Clarkson, You’re going to need to get on the leading edge of getting this state back to work if you want to do anything that doesn’t pull more people into the quagmire of the state’s corona virus response. The leading edge is a dangerous place for you to be. It entails stepping aside so we can go about our lives and be personally responsible for deciding if we need to stay home and or how we might need to protect ourselves. We get working….those people can start making rent payments or get loans to buy homes that cost less than rent. This run down, played out state has homes all over the place that could be had for a monthly payment less than rent. It would be up you Senator Clarkson to then put some policies back in place that once again lessen the financial burden to the state for home owners.

  4. Keith Stern says:

    She is right about one thing: The housing problem is a health problem. But the question is why is there a housing problem?

    The democrat-controlled legislature has made it very hard to be a landlord because of excessive and needless regulations that make it very time consuming and expensive to build housing in Vermont. Second is the excessively high taxes in this state that falls on the tenants to pay through their rent. Third is the lack of support for landlords who have to go through a lengthy and expensive eviction process to remove deadbeat, destructive, and disruptive tenants with no way to recover their expenses.

    People may think that it is the cost of renting property but some of the risk is borne by the tenants in the form of higher rental charges. With the obstacles created by the politicians many of the good landlords have given up and left us with a lot of “slumlords” with rundown properties.

    So Sen. Clarkson own the problem. Don’t just talk about the problems that you have helped create.

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