Housing and the Legislative Response
The availability of good housing for middle income Vermonters, near their place of work, is a problem in many areas of the state. Contractors struggle to build homes priced for this market. In Chittenden County, a consortium of community leaders dramatically made that point with the establishment of a campaign, “Building Houses Together”, to build 3500 housing units over the next five years. They requested legislative participation in the process. In the last legislative session there was such an initiative, H-702. House bill 702 was a “workforce housing” bill that addressed all the major issues raised by the Chittenden County group.
Why is a healthy stock of median priced and affordable rental units and owner occupied homes important to a community? For starters new housing construction means more jobs for carpenters, electricians, plumbers, etc. It also means greater housing opportunities for potential new hires at area employers. This can lead to breaking down barriers in employer thinking about whether to expand in Vermont or elsewhere. More housing means community tax base growth. More jobs mean state income and sales tax revenue. The momentum created by housing construction can also lead to rising income for many Vermonters. A few more millennials might be able to move out of their parents’ home. When we grow the inventory of median priced housing we also benefit the “affordable” housing market as well. A healthy housing inventory translates to healthy communities.
So what did H-702 propose and what happened to the legislation? H-702, which later became H-865, was designed to establish two pilot projects for the construction of housing that would be affordable for households with incomes up to 120% of their county’s median. Completion of the pilot projects would help us learn how to shape a sustainable program. The bill addressed three critical areas of home building cost. First, it streamlined the permitting process by targeting three prime housing development locales, Neighborhood Development Areas, Community Growth Zones, and Downtown Designation Zones. Development in these designated zones protects against undue stress on land and water resources, traffic congestion, and pollution. Second, the high cost of land was addressed by requiring a minimum of four single family detached units per acre, in other words, the bill sought to maximize investments through high density construction. Each project was to have a minimum of twelve housing units. Finally, we funded H-702 with one million dollars. This money was to fund the infrastructure needed in at least two projects, infrastructure like roads, sewer, and sidewalks. The House Appropriations and Government Operations committees worked hard to find the funding without forcing additional taxation.
As a Republican, and a first term legislator, I realized that support from House leadership and committee chairs was critical in moving the bill. My effort in working with members of the House paid off as the bill passed unanimously in the House General and Military Affairs Committee, and then, on the floor, it was voted out 139 to 4. This points out a valuable lesson, that with good communication, effort and conviction, a minority party member can get Tri-partisan support for major legislation.
The bill then went to the Senate, where, unfortunately, the good news ended. The Senate money committees found other ways to spend the allocated one million dollars, and the bill, that had tri-partisan support in the House, did not emerge to become law. Lesson number two from this experience is the administration and at least a healthy portion of majority party leadership has no economic development vision, nor sensitivity to working towards making Vermont a more affordable place to live. When push came to shove other spending priorities took precedence. An investment in Vermont’s future did not.
As a member of the minority party, I recognize legislative victories are not easy. While I am disappointed that many in the majority party leadership pushed aside prioritizing economic development, and taking a practical step towards making Vermont a more affordable place to live, I am heartened to learn that leaders in Chittenden County share my commitment toward solving this issue of public concern and, with the continued support of my district, look forward to working with them and my colleagues in Montpelier to pass this initiative next legislative session.