Op-ed: Legislature faces challenge of housing crisis

By Sen. Alison Clarkson

After many long floor sessions debating and passing bills to the other body, the legislature has pretty much completed crossover, that point in the session where all bills that have any chance of making it into law have to be passed from the House to the Senate or vice versa.

It takes about two weeks at the end of March to finish this work. We passed bills dealing with issues from firearm safety to environmental justice, from birthing centers to end-of-life choices, from redistricting to town charter changes, from education finance to workforce development, from forest fragmentation to our mental health crisis, and from affordable housing to cannabis farming.

So, now, as we begin April, the House and the Senate are busy reviewing each other’s work, making our additions and finishing up the work of this 2022 Session.

We’ve taken action on many of our top priorities this year, including housing, workforce development, climate change mitigation, Vermont’s continued response to Covid’s impact on our economy and our citizens, and fixing the unfunded liability challenges in our public pension system.

Vermont’s housing crisis has occupied a good deal of our Senate Economic Development Committee time. A healthy housing market is critically important to our economy and our communities. And that health is challenged at the moment with rental vacancy rates of less than 1 percent in the Upper Valley, increased costs of building materials, and the median sales price of purchasing a home being up about 20 percent. Businesses can’t find places for new recruits to live and Vermonters can’t afford to buy homes or rent apartments in the communities of their choice. People are really feeling the housing crunch.

Omnibus housing bill S.226 is designed to reduce barriers to building more housing, and provide incentives to stimulate housing development. It has a number of components:

  • grants to encourage increased housing density in our downtowns and village centers by building more accessory dwelling units that can only be used for long term rentals,
  • permit reforms that get rid of duplicative waste-water permitting and extend permit expiration times, and
  • tax incentives to attract downtown housing development and for use in purchasing or replacing mobile homes.

It increases the number of units a Priority Housing Project (exempt from Act 250) can build, creates grants that make housing more affordable for our middle income families and that keep these homes perpetually affordable, relaxes land-use regulation provisions to support housing density and smart growth, and prioritizes first-generation homebuyers for the Down Payment Assistance Program run by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

It creates grants for mobile home owners and parks to make small scale capital improvements, home repair and incentives to relocate from flood hazard areas, and it authorizes the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to partner with large employers (hospitals, resorts, regional businesses) on housing projects and with commercial property owners to convert properties to housing.

In addition, this bill adds funding to the municipal planning grant program and extends the popular By-Law Modernization program, it increases our Downtown and Village Tax Credits Program and expands it to include Neighborhood Development Areas (areas immediately adjacent to our designated downtowns), and it creates a Flood Mitigation Tax Credit that will enable qualified flood mitigation projects. Finally, S.226 includes a compromise on the home contractors registration and certification framework for residential contractors within the Office of Professional Regulation. This is an important piece of consumer protection designed to reduce home improvement fraud.

I appreciate hearing from you. I can be reached by email: aclarkson@leg.state.vt.us or by phone at 802-457-4627. To watch legislative committees in action, and to get more information on the Vermont legislature, the bills that are being debated now, and those that have been proposed and passed, visit the legislative website by clicking here.

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

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