Balint: Dwelling in possibility — facing our housing crisis
During my first pregnancy, we lived in a two-room apartment near where my spouse worked.
We chose tighter, cheaper quarters so that we could squirrel away money for the down payment and closing costs on a house. There were a few things to like about the apartment, and there was much to grumble about, and we did fairly frequently. We couldn't wait to get in our own home.
The market was tight then, with only a few options for a couple looking for something "move-in ready." And though we bought a well-kept house, it still needed months of cosmetic, safety, and efficiency updates. It still had old knob and tube wiring, needed a new fuse box, had closets coated in lead paint, and desperately needed new windows.
We worked like mad to get that house ready for the baby. As I labored, stretched out in the hospital, the nurse noted that I had primer in my hair. I laughed, proud of all the work we'd done to get our vintage house up to snuff. It took a lot of elbow grease, but also frugal ways, to close the deal. To pay off my student loans, I'd driven a decrepit car for years it had a "funky" speedometer, an anemic horn and a duct-taped hood. But it was worth it I wanted my own home.
By just about every measure, we have a housing crisis in Vermont. In many areas of Vermont, the vacancy rate of rental units is nearly nonexistent. We lack sufficient housing at all income levels and this plays out in many ways. Businesses and nonprofits have trouble recruiting workers to Vermont. Would-be employees can get considerably "more house" (and a newer one) for less money in other parts of the country.
The housing crisis also creates downward pressure on the system families sometimes buy or rent cheaper housing than they can afford because that's what's available. This creates a tighter market for those towards the lower end of the market. Many of our residents simply cannot find safe, clean, affordable housing.
The housing crunch also contributes to a corrections issue: we have over 100 incarcerated people in Vermont who have served their sentences but are not yet released due to lack of appropriate, affordable housing. Each case is different, and some violent offenders and sex offenders have very strict restrictions on where they can live, but there's no denying that affordability plays a role. And each day that we continue to "house" these offenders in prison costs the state a great deal of money and robs them of basic human dignity.
This session I partnered with Rep. Fred Baser of Bristol to introduce a new idea to bring down the expense of new housing construction. Infrastructure costs make new housing projects a very tricky endeavor. It's difficult for builders to construct modestly priced homes when the underlying infrastructure costs are folded into the price. It used to be that federal dollars supported the infrastructure build-out for these housing projects, but no more. If the bill survives the Senate Appropriations committee, a pilot program would enable municipalities to apply for grant funding to mitigate the cost of infrastructure buildout for new homes in a designated downtown district. It's only a modest beginning, but it is an important step. We must try out some new possible solutions.
Funding any new project in the current political climate is extremely challenging, but increasing access to adequate housing offsets costs elsewhere. These chickens are coming home to roost, whether or not we have a house for them.
Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.
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