by Nat Frothingham
Is there ever general agreement on anything in Montpelier? Not often — because Montpelier is a state capital and a very political town.
That being the case, I was astonished after talking with four local housing experts to discover a general agreement about the housing situation in Montpelier.
Last week, I talked with Jo Ann Troiano, the longtime executive director of the Montpelier Housing Authority; also with Polly Nichol, director of housing programs for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and also a longtime member of the Montpelier Housing Task Force. Then I talked with Jack McCullough, also a Housing Task Force member who is chair of the Montpelier Housing Authority. And all along I’ve been in touch via email and phone and in person with Kevin Casey, community development specialist at the city of Montpelier’s Planning and Development Office who has a close understanding of current housing affairs.
Here’s what the four housing experts are telling us, and, although their words are slightly different, their basic description of housing problems in Montpelier is much the same:
Montpelier’s Housing Situation
There’s a tight Montpelier housing market with a vacancy rate of less than one percent, when a healthy vacancy rate ought to be about five percent.
Also, while there’s still money to support a variety of housing initiatives, that money — be it federal, state, or local money — is not as plentiful today as it was in the past.
But here’s the final point of agreement — and this was an eye-opener for me — in assessing the tightness of the housing situation in the city, we’re not just talking about so-called “affordable” housing — housing that’s partly subsidized for people in need. What impressed me in talking with the housing experts was that they were pretty much unanimous in saying, “We’ve got a tight housing market. But that tightness is not confined to affordable housing units. Or, as Kevin Casey said, “We need housing at all levels.” Or as Jack McCullough asserted, “We have problems at every price point in the system.”
Needed: A General Assault
If the housing experts are right and we have housing needs all across the board, then what we need is a general assault on the tightness of the housing market.
Here’s at least in part is what that general assault would look like. And let’s remember to pay attention to the range of people who live in Montpelier already and want to stay, and pay attention also to the people from outside who want to live here and need housing.
First, the city should continue administering the Housing Preservation Grant Program that’s made possible by a revolving loan fund. That fund makes zero-interest loans available, typically to elders on fixed incomes, so that if a boiler goes out or if a roof needs immediate repairs, elders can stay in their homes. There are two positive outcomes from this program: Elders on fixed incomes can stay in their homes; and valuable housing can be preserved.
Second, the city should continue competing for federal Housing and Urban Development block grants. As a result of a $560,000 block grant received by the city in June 2014, 19 affordable housing units on Barre Street are currently being rehabilitated. Many of these units serve clients of Washington County Mental Health.
Third, the city council should continue its annual dollar support of the Montpelier Housing Trust Fund. In cooperation with Downstreet Housing and Community Development (formerly CVCLT or Central Vermont Community Land Trust) the city has earmarked $90,000 from the fund to help up to six eligible first-time home buyers with a $15,000 grant to help them with a down payment. Adding first-time home buyers in the city could modestly increase the number of students in our public schools.
Fourth, the city should continue its support of Home Share Now, a program that matches people in search of housing with people (typically elders) who want to stay in their homes but need assistance to live independently. Home Share has grown from 64 participants in 2012-2013 to 113 participants in 2014-2015 and these numbers include both people offering space in their homes and people seeking a home share arrangement.
Fifth, the city should continue to encourage private development. As recently reported in The Bridge there are three housing project either going forward or in the planning stages: A six-unit apartment building on Cedar Street close to downtown is set to be completed this summer; A 40-unit apartment building that’s part of the One Taylor Street project; and a proposed 16-unit apartment building on the corner of Sibley and Sabin streets in the College Hill neighborhood.
Sixth, the city should press hard to assemble the finances needed to encourage building owners along Main Street to develop housing in available upstairs spaces. Creating housing downtown will put people on the street, it will increase security and it will add to the city’s commercial vigor.
High property taxes are a burden. Adding more housing can help address this problem. It’s a decided plus that people want to live in the Capital City. Let’s invite them in. Let’s accommodate them. When we create more housing we can add to our numbers and more people can share our surplus capacities, our surplus water, our surplus space in our public schools. If more people were buying water from our system, our water bills would decrease. And if we had more students in our public schools, wouldn’t that mean that we could continue to support a quality education program for our kids and at the same time benefit from property tax relief?