Home News and Features ‘We Are in a Housing Crisis’ Winter Shelter Opens at Elks...

‘We Are in a Housing Crisis’
Winter Shelter Opens at Elks Club, Council Approves Proposal to Restrict Short-Term Rentals

Jonathan Moulin, shelter coordinator at the Good Samaritan Haven, prepares the former Elks Club in Montpelier for use as an emergency winter shelter. The shelter opened Monday, Nov. 13. Photo by Meredith Warner.
A growing homeless population and a 0% housing vacancy rate brought a local housing crisis into sharp focus at the Nov. 9 Montpelier City Council meeting. The city will be hosting an emergency winter shelter at the former Elks Club starting this week, and councilors voted to pursue an ordinance restricting short-term rentals in order to free up long-term housing. 

A New Shelter

A winter emergency shelter opened its doors Monday, Nov. 13, at the former Elks Club on Country Club Road, a property acquired by the city in 2022. According to a memo from the city’s Homelessness Task Force, the shelter will offer 15 beds until April 30, 2024.

However, the memo also stated: “There are more people currently outside than the winter overflow shelter will accommodate,” and Good Samaritan Haven’s 61 beds across three shelters are nearly full. On top of that, Task Force member Meredith Warner (also a staff member at Good Samaritan Haven) noted that the shelters and Another Way in Montpelier serve adults only, not families with children. Hedding United Methodist Church in Barre has been serving families, she said, and “they were seeing an increase in parents and children living both in motels and campers and sometimes in cars as well.” 

At its most recent count, the Barre Unified Union School District has 83 students without permanent housing (see story, page 11).

Warner described two groups of people experiencing homelessness: unsheltered, those living outdoors, and sheltered, those living in shelters and motels but who don’t have a permanent home. Regarding unsheltered homelessness, Warner said “Our street outreach has seen an increase in recent years, but particularly post flood, and is serving about 80 individuals throughout the area …” The July floods washed away many camping spots, Warner said, adding that street outreach workers have been spending a lot of time helping people find safe campsites.

 “On the bright side,” Warner noted, local faith organizations that used to rotate providing free meals are now working together to provide lunches five days a week out of Christ Church. “It’s been great to see them collaborating to provide that support.” Additionally, she said Another Way continues to offer “day space” and meals for adults.

Head counts of those who are homeless increased 71%, from 260 in September 2020 to 446 people in Washington County shelters, area motels, and outside in January 2023, which includes 43 families, according to the memo.

Warner pointed out the 2023 count “does not account for folks who have been displaced because of the flood.”

Another trend: Good Samaritan has seen more shelter guests over the age of 55, to the tune of a 40% increase, a number expected to stay steady, or continue to rise, Warner noted.

Mayor Jack McCullough referred to a recently released emergency shelter policy from the Vermont Agency of Human Services (AHS) Department for Children and Families (DCF). According to AHS, between Nov. 15 and Dec. 15, and March 15 to April 15, people will be able to get a motel voucher when certain conditions are either met or expected. Those conditions are when temperatures or wind chills fall below 20 degrees Fahrenheit or are lower than 32 degrees Fahrenheit with a higher than 50% chance of precipitation, for at least three hours between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. in the town in which the DCF district office is located.

“It’s pretty much the typical winter support provided by AHS,” Warner said.

McCullough responded “I don’t want to criticize AHS … but the idea that somebody would have to demonstrate that it would have an adverse effect on them to have to sleep outside in the winter is kind of mind boggling.”

The city will soon be asking the state to “step up and do more” said council member Lauren Hierl, who asked Warner what the council should specifically request. Warner replied that the Task Force is putting together a list of needs.

“I think shelter, baseline, is always the request,” Warner said. “People just always need shelter.”

Proposal to Restrict Short-Term Housing

A 0% housing vacancy rate in Montpelier prompted the city to create a Housing Committee a year ago. One of the committee’s first recommendations — which the council voted unanimously to pursue — is to restrict short-term rentals through a city ordinance. 

Rebecca Copans, a member of Committee, presented two recommendations.. The first: limit short-term rentals to “properties declared as an owner’s homestead, and incorporate registration, data collection, adherence to safety codes, and enforcement requirements,” per the task force’s memo to the council.

A second recommendation calls for an 8% local options tax on gross receipts of all short-term rentals, to be voted on at the 2024 Town Meeting. Doing so requires a city charter change, so Copans stressed “we do not want the underlying policy to get caught up in this more complicated proposal.”

The “underlying policy” amounts to this, Copans said: “If you live in your home, if you have a property that you declare as your homestead, you can rent out a room, you can rent out the entire home, if you have a duplex you can continue to rent out … as long as it’s your homestead.”

But, in order to buck a growing national trend of housing stock getting bought up by investors, “we’re drawing a line in the sand on a property that is not your homestead.” Those who own an investment property solely for short-term rental income “can rent long-term, or sell it,” she said.

As the memo put it: “What the Committee intends to restrict is when whole units are diverted from the long-term housing market into short-term rentals for investment income.”

“Our goal is to support people who work here, who volunteer here, who attend our schools, who want to live in Montpelier because they just can’t find housing,” Copans said. “The goal is to increase the long-term housing supply. If we can increase the overall numbers, it will drive down prices and increase affordability as well.”

Dan Lindner, who said he runs an Airbnb in part of his garage on upper Main Street, objected to the local options tax. He said he rents the space for $80 a night, plus fees that bring the total to “around $150.”

“By the time we add the local options tax of 8%, I’m concerned that that increase will impact our ability to rent the place for the modest fee that we do,” Lindner said.

“A quick 8% on $80 … is not that much,” said Jessica Oparowski, who urged the council to approve the proposal.

The proposal around short-term housing is only one of several initiatives the Housing Committee is working on, Copans reported, noting that this one is “low hanging fruit,” and can happen more quickly than longer-term solutions, such as housing projects projected for the city-owned Country Club Road property, which will take years to develop.

“While we might not see as many short-term rentals … or investor opportunities [as other areas of Vermont], I think the tide is just beginning,” said Emma Zavez, chair of the Housing Committee. “We have arrived. We are in a housing crisis. We have lots of unsheltered people. We have lots of people working here who can’t afford a place to live. Every unit of housing counts at this moment. These units exist right now. They are ready right now. They could be long-term housing for community members.”

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