Housing action plan

The Brattleboro Select Board endorsed a housing action plan. 

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BRATTLEBORO — An action plan seeking to address the housing crisis in town identifies a need for more than 500 units right away.

Last year, consultants from Camoin Associates were hired by the town for the project. Planning Director Sue Fillion said the plan is now finished. She looks at it as a guide for future planning, policies and potential regulatory/programmatic implementation measures, to be used by the town, as well as partners in the community.

Strategies presented to address local housing crisis

Endorsed by the Select Board in a 4 to 0 vote Tuesday, the plan identifies opportunities and barriers. It can be found on brattleboro.org.

“As a result of decades of low housing production, we have a severe housing shortage,” Fillion said at Tuesday’s board meeting, adding that pricing indicates a reliance on substandard housing, crowding and other less than ideal living arrangements.

Fillion said the plan recognizes a strong unmet demand for housing that the private market is unable to address because of several constraints, however, it doesn’t touch on refugee arrivals.

“I think it’s going to require some changes in our existing plans and practices,” she said, including increased involvement from the municipality in housing projects such as pursuing new funding sources.

A steering committee, the Brattleboro Planning Commission and community members all weighed in on the plan.

“We hope there’s buy-in from all, so we can implement it,” Fillion said.

She spoke to a need for more homeownership opportunities that are affordable to local residents, suggesting housing cooperatives as a way to bring in more units that is attractive to developers. Accessory dwelling units, sometimes called mother-in-law apartments, also are being eyed as part of the solution.

One idea involves getting multiple partners to contribute to a fund for “greater reach on a housing project,” Fillion said. Another is to advocate for the creation of a predevelopment loan program to assist with costs such as planning and permitting.

A third project would be to pursue a permanent funding stream for rehabilitating rental housing. Fillion called a state grant program “helpful in creating new units.”

“There are some efforts at the state to have continuation of that program,” she said.

To help support residents in finding and retaining quality housing, Fillion said a housing specialist in town could work on implementing the plan and participate in communitywide efforts. Data could be tracked in a single place that developers and the public would be able access.

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Fillion said she thinks the town needs to collaborate more regionally and start to address short-term rentals. She suggested creating a registry for such units to track effects on the local housing market.

Board member Daniel Quipp described wanting to be as active in the process as possible and act with urgency.

“We should be thinking really big about this, and I’m excited to figure out a path through it all,” he said. “It’s a lot to take in, a lot to process.”

With only so much capacity in the town and community, board member Tim Wessel proposed weighting the priorities. He also recommended using half of the town’s remaining federal American Rescue Plan Act funds as “seed money” to leverage outside investment with other organizations.

“Our housing crisis is a complicated and a largely market-driven problem,” he wrote Wednesday on Facebook. “Rather than point fingers or waste time on narrow Band-Aids for a systemic issue, I think we need to increase the housing supply in Brattleboro, as quickly as possible.”

With the ARPA funds, Wessel said, Brattleboro could “pursue senior housing, clustered villages and apartments, and even provide direct funding to small accessory projects and existing structures to create new homes.” After replenishing the parking and general funds in response to pandemic-related revenue losses, the town has about $2.74 million of ARPA funds left over.

“With our Housing Action Plan as our guide, and with the help of our talented staff to keep us on the most financially efficient path to achieve our goals, let’s take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create more places to live in our lovely town,” Wessel wrote. “The impact could be huge and represent long-term value for our residents.”

Town Manager Yoshi Manale said he would talk with town staff and come up with “a plan for a plan.”

Kurt Daims, executive director of Brattleboro Common Sense, said his group sent the board a proposal for rent and eviction control more than a year ago.

“I think we’re focusing too much on new construction,” he said. “It’s become kind of a box that we’re stuck in, and it’s distracting us from real short-term emergency solutions.”

Planning Commission member Doran Hamm wants to look at capping rent prices because it “only keeps going up.”

“This project is a really good step forward,” Hamm said, “but people who are still getting squeezed the hardest are the lowest-income renters.”

Fillion said in Vermont, municipalities don’t have authority to put in rent control or stabilization measures, but she believes the Legislature is discussing a bill to address the issue.