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Low-Income Vermonters with Disabilities Sue State Over Benefit Cuts

Posted July 27, 2015

Low-income Vermonters with disabilities are fighting back against state mandated reductions to their household Reach Up benefits. Vermont Legal Aid filed a class action lawsuit in federal court today on behalf of affected Vermonters alleging that a new law is unconstitutional and discriminates against households with family members with a disabling condition.

The new law counts $125 of adult Supplemental Security Income (SSI) income against a household’s temporary cash assistance (or “Reach Up”) benefits. The plaintiffs are asking the court for an injunction to stop the cuts from taking effect, and to declare the reductions unconstitutional, discriminatory and illegal.

“I feel like I’m being punished for having a disability,” said Robin Wheeler of Williamstown, one of the named plaintiffs in the suit. Ms. Wheeler suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, anxiety and depression. She said she has to meet the needs of herself and her 15-year old daughter and cannot afford any reduction in benefits.

“The State of Vermont is picking the pockets of the poor and disabled to solve its budget problems,” said Legal Aid attorney Christopher Curtis, who brought the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs. “It’s unconscionable, it’s unfair, and it’s unlawful,” said Curtis.

Curtis said the benefit cuts are unnecessary pointing to recent news of a $21 million budget surplus. “Instead, the state has elected to levy a ‘poor tax’ on people with disabilities,” he said. “We cannot afford to have low-income families and children sacrificed on the altar of austerity,” said Curtis.

Notices were recently mailed to approximately 860 Vermont households advising them that their benefits would be reduced starting on August 1st. Many households were taken by surprise.

“I had no idea this was coming, and I think it is totally wrong,” said another plaintiff, Tina Bidwell of Johnson. Ms. Bidwell is blind and cares for her grandson. “I barely get by with my disability and I can’t afford the state taking away our benefits,” she said. Because she is blind, Ms. Bidwell has to pay for transportation to the grocery store, her doctor’s office, and other appointments.

Curtis pointed out that the state has told beneficiaries in its notice that the cuts will become effective immediately even if they appeal the decision reducing benefits starting August 1st. “Only the court has the power to stop these catastrophic reductions from taking place,” said Curtis. “So, we are asking for immediate relief to stop families from being harmed while the case is pending.”

The change in state statute relates to how benefits are computed. Currently, SSI beneficiaries are not considered part of a Reach Up assistance unit and their disability benefits are not counted in determining Reach Up grants. The new law set to go into effect August 1st seeks to count $125 of any adult SSI benefit received by a family member against the remaining family Reach Up grants resulting in a dollar-for-dollar reduction. The new law was part of a $1.6 million cut in the FY 2016 budget that passed over the objections of Vermont Legal Aid and other advocates.

The lawsuit alleges that the new policy deprives affected Vermonters of due process and equal protection because there is insufficient opportunity for pre- or post-termination relief and because it treats similarly situated families differently. It also alleges violations of federal and state law for treating certain households differently on the basis of disability status and for counting adult SSI income against the Reach Up grants, which Legal Aid contends violates Social Security law.

“It’s not enough that these families are already among the very poorest in Vermont. Now the state is singling out certain families with special needs resulting from disability for unequal treatment and benefit reductions,” said Curtis. “We will fight on behalf of low-income Vermont families with disabilities to stop these cuts from taking effect.”

Federal courts in Washington and West Virginia have issued injunctions in the past to stop similar cuts for children with SSI income whose households also receive temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) grants. Reach Up is Vermont’s TANF program. The proposed reductions in Vermont count adult SSI income, but do not count a child’s SSI income against a Reach Up grant.

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For more on this story, view the VT Digger coverage here and their original report on this reduction to Reach Up benefits here. To view this press release on the Vermont Legal Aid website, click here.

 



State Moves to End Family Homelessness By 2020

Posted July 24, 2015

VT Digger discusses the progress being made on the plan to end family and child homelessness in Vermont by 2020. The plan, which was announced earlier in the year by Governor Shumlin, is also part of a national goal established by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness:

Vermont is rolling out an initiative to eliminate child and family homelessness by 2020.

The Vermont State Housing Authority is in the final stages of approving a new policy that would give families with children priority for vouchers for rental properties.

Under new policy, which was approved by the VSHA board last week, families that are working with a caseworker and receiving other services will qualify more quickly for subsidies that offset the cost of rent.

Richard Williams, executive director of VSHA, said the new housing rules will help families address other economic issues.

“If you have a roof over your head you can start to deal with other challenges,” Williams said.

The policy needs to be approved by the federal government before it can go into effect, which Williams expects will take a few months.

The change has been in the works since the beginning of the year, and the Housing Authority has taken public input on it. It is one step in the Shumlin administration’s three-pronged plan to eliminate family homelessness in the state by 2020.

“Homelessness is a challenge for everyone,” Williams said of the administration’s initiative, “but homelessness for families with kids should be the state’s priority.”

Angus Chaney, director of housing with the Agency of Human Services, told the Vermont Child Poverty Council on Tuesday that the state is moving forward with implementing the administration’s proposals.

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Secretary of Human Services Hal Cohen unveiled the effort in March.

One of the biggest obstacles, Chaney said, is the state’s vacancy rate for rental housing units, which is less than 1 percent in some areas.

“All the subsidies and services in the world don’t reduce the number of homeless families if there’s no apartments to move into,” Chaney said.

The administration’s initiative includes a two-part plan to encourage private development of rental housing and to bring existing run-down properties up to code so they are able to be rented.

Chaney told the panel that the state still has a way to go on the “construction” portion of the initiative.

“Think of rental subsidies, supportive services and access to housing as the three legs of the stool when it comes to ending homelessness,” Chaney said Wednesday. “Unless they all line up in the proper quantities, things are precarious at best for people experiencing homelessness.”

According to a report by the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness and the Chittenden County Homeless Alliance, on the night of Jan. 27, there were 1,523 homeless Vermonters — a 2.3 percent reduction from last year.

Children were members of 199 of the households counted as homeless — 18.6 percent of the total.

Williams said the need for affordable housing in Vermont was underscored this spring when VSHA opened the waitlist for rental housing vouchers. In a month and a half, 1,600 people applied for vouchers, he said.

VSHA typically gives out between 25 and 30 vouchers per month.

Erhard Mahnke of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition said Vermont can end family homelessness in the next five years, but he underscored the need for additional support on the state and national level.

Congressional support for housing programs will be critical to the success of the initiative, as is support in Montpelier, he said.

“If the state is willing to provide some additional resources, it is something that is achievable,” Mahnke said.

For a link to the full article, click here.

 



Job Opportunities with CEDO

Posted

CEDO is looking to fill two positions in their newly re-organized Sustainability, Housing and Economic Development team which will continue CEDO’s legacy of innovation around entrepreneurship, housing, jobs, and growing a more diverse and vibrant city.

The first position is Assistant Director for Sustainability Housing and Economic Development. This position oversees the team charged with developing
policy and facilitating projects to create sustainable growth of housing and
economic enterprise in the City of Burlington. Click here for details.

The second position is Project and Policy Specialist with a particular focus on housing development and the implementation of the City’s almost completed Housing Action Plan. This a great opportunity for an engaged, smart and organized person to play a key role in one of the administrations highest priorities. Click here for details.

Both positions are currently open until filled.

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HOME Coalition Sign On Letter – Deadline TOMORROW Friday, July 24

Posted July 23, 2015

If you haven’t done so already, please sign onto a national letter supporting the HOME Program. As you may know, the Senate Appropriations Committee T-HUD bill virtually eliminates HOME by cutting it down to $66 million – a shocking 93% cut. The House bill provides only $767 million for HOME and also contains a highly objectionable transfer that essentially eliminates the National Housing Trust Fund—the first new housing resource since the early 1990’s—in an attempt to bring HOME up to last year’s record low $900 million level. All this comes on top of the 50% cut the program already has already sustained since 2010, when its funding was at $1.8 million.

We all know how important HOME is for developing new, and rehabbing existing, rental housing. It helps seniors, people with disabilities, low-income families with children, veterans and people experiencing homelessness access safe, decent, and affordable housing. Under the Senate bill, Vermont stands to lose $3.25 million, the six New England states a total of $52.5 million. With a 1% rental vacancy rate statewide and persistent homelessness among families with children, youth and single adults, Vermont cannot afford these drastic cuts. Without HOME, our affordable housing production will slow further and homelessness will once again increase.

This letter from the HOME Coalition has been circulated widely by several national networks, but if you haven’t yet signed on, I highly encourage you to join us in doing so! The deadline is tomorrow, Friday the 24th. Here’s a link to the letter: http://bit.ly/1Dfilul.

Also, please contact your colleagues in other states and through your own networks and ask them to let their congressional delegations know how important HOME is. We have heard repeatedly from our congressional staff and through some of our national networks that other state delegations have not heard a significant outcry against the proposed cuts.

For more information and resources, please visit the HOME Coalition’s website.

 



Progress for More Housing Choices

Posted

Ted Wimpey, director of the Fair Housing Project of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity and Chair of the VAHC, recently wrote this opinion piece published in the Times Argus that discusses the Fair Housing Act and the new statewide initiative, “Thriving Communities: Building a vibrant, inclusive Vermont”:

Seldom does the unveiling of a seemingly obscure federal regulation become a big news event.

That’s what happened Wednesday, July 8, however, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released its long-awaited rule on “affirmatively furthering fair housing.”

The rule won cheers from fair housing advocates — including me — who believe it could be a major step forward in expanding housing opportunity for millions of Americans. And it meets jeers from anti-“big” government skeptics who see it as an example of egregious federal overreach.

The skeptics have it wrong, but before I explain why, some background:

The phrase “affirmatively furthering fair housing” — a tongue-twister, admittedly — has its origin in a landmark piece of civil rights legislation, the Fair Housing Act of 1968. That law essentially declared that Americans have a right to choose where they live without being discriminated against based on several criteria including race, color and national origin.

The Fair Housing Act and its amendments made it illegal, among other things, to refuse to rent or sell real estate to someone because of race, national origin or disability, among other “protected classes.” But the law, passed by Congress soon after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and in the face of widespread racial segregation and social unrest, went beyond banning discrimination.

It also sought to desegregate neighborhoods and to promote development of more inclusive communities, so that people with a wide range of incomes and backgrounds would have opportunities to live in optimal-opportunity areas with access to good jobs, good schools and other quality goods and services.

Alas, the vision of fully expanding opportunity and breaking up concentrations of poverty has hardly been fulfilled. Nearly a half-century after the act’s passage, residential segregation by race remains pervasive in major metropolitan areas across the country; and economic inequality, reflected in residential demographic patterns, continues to widen.

Reversing these trends, and proactively opening up housing choices for people in protected classes, is what HUD’s rule is all about. That was the intent of the act’s primary sponsors, back in the Civil Rights era, so this is by no means a “new” federal policy priority.

What’s new is that the lofty old legislative phrase, “affirmatively furthering fair housing,” has been given an operational meaning in service of the act’s equal-opportunity ideal — an ideal that most Americans embrace.

In particular, the rule provides guidance to states, counties and municipalities that receive federal development funds on how to meet their fair housing obligations by identifying and overcoming historic barriers to equal housing opportunity. Making sure that federal tax dollars are used to protect fair housing rights and to expand opportunity — rather than to perpetuate pockets of segregation or poverty — hardly qualifies as “overreach.” It’s a matter of implementing longstanding principles of fairness. It’s also a matter of holding recipients of federal grants accountable to the values embodied in the Fair Housing Act.

Vermont benefits from various forms of federal assistance including that aimed at adding to the affordable housing stock. The continuing shortage of affordable housing has been critical for years, and remains so. More than half of Vermont’s renters are paying more of their income for total housing cost than they can be reasonably expected to afford, and home ownership remains out of reach for many people.

What does affirmatively furthering fair housing mean in Vermont? At a minimum it means maintaining vigilance regarding most blatant housing discrimination, as our predominantly white state welcomes increasing numbers of refugees and other people of color. Moreover, Vermont’s own fair housing law goes beyond the federal act in extending protection to people for their sexual orientation or receipt of public assistance.

But it also means recognizing, and overcoming, more subtle systemic barriers to fair and affordable housing choice. Where planning and zoning regulations effectively preclude the development of affordable and mixed income housing in high-opportunity areas near town centers, for example, communities need to consider how they can revise policies to make them more inclusive. After all, communities thrive when they welcome a wide variety of residents, with assorted skills and backgrounds, who can drive the local economy and enliven the local culture.

That’s the premise of a new statewide initiative, “Thriving Communities: Building a vibrant, inclusive Vermont.” (For more information, go to the website, thrivingcommunitiesvt.org) The aim is to promote the development of affordable housing, especially in mixed-income areas near town centers with ready access to transit and quality services — in other words, to “affirmatively further fair housing” in a Vermont way and make communities thrive for us all.

 



St. Johnsbury Officials Consider Warming Shelter

Posted July 22, 2015

VT Digger reports on current efforts being made to open a winter warming shelter in St. Johnsbury. Below is an excerpt from the article:

A local steering committee hopes to open a winter warming shelter in St. Johnsbury to house up to 10 homeless people in time for the next cold season.

Organizers are looking for support to host the facility in part of the Northeast Kingdom Youth Services building on Bagley Street and would like to have it open by October.

The state spent more than $270,000 on motel vouchers for homeless people in the St. Johnsbury area last winter. A shelter could mitigate that cost while connecting people with other services to help them escape poverty, officials say.

About 25 people turned out Thursday night at the proposed shelter site for a spaghetti supper and to learn more about the proposed overnight transitional shelter.

The committee is made up of nonprofits, including the Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA), the Community Justice Restorative Center, Inc., Northeast Kingdom Youth Services, local clergy, the Agency of Human Services, the Economic Services Division and more.

Northeast Kingdom Youth Services has offered the shelter site at “a very affordable rate,” said Val Covell, warming shelter coordinator for NEKCA.

A similar effort failed last year after opposition rose against a proposed site on Lincoln Street, she said.

Covell said the state is working with communities to find better solutions to help homeless individuals than the present voucher system, where people in crisis are put into motels on an emergency basis.

A warming shelter would help to connect people to services such as housing and employment to help them get back on their feet, Covell said.

“It’s not just about housing them, it’s about trying to help them — why are they on the street? What happened, and what can we do to get them where they need to be?” she said.

The shelter proposal will be before the town’s Development Review Board on July 30, where a vote on the change of use application filed by Northeast Kingdom Youth Services is expected.

To finish reading the full article, click here.

 



Job Opportunity: Child Care Loan Coordinator with the Vermont Community Loan Fund

Posted

CHILD CARE LOAN COORDINATOR
The Vermont Community Loan Fund is recruiting a loan coordinator to support our Child Care Loan Program. The person selected will work in support of an experienced program director and other program staff in all aspects of loan processing and servicing. The position, based in Montpelier, VT, is full-time, 40 hours/week.

Qualifications:
Knowledge and experience in lending procedures and documentation, ability to work with limited supervision, excellent interpersonal and networking skills, and competence in oral and written communication. Microsoft Office and Windows 7 computer competence required. Knowledge of loan packaging or loan servicing as well as the child care industry is highly desirable. VCLF is an Equal Opportunity Employer. Applications from women, veterans and people from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds are encouraged to apply. Send cover letter, resume and salary requirements to: Human Resources, VCLF, P.O. Box 827, Montpelier, VT 05601-0827 or via email to: hr@vclf.org

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Job Opportunities with the Vermont State Housing Authority

Posted

UPDATE: Positions Filled

SELF-SUFFICIENCY CASE MANAGER
Make a difference by helping individuals & families reach their goals of independence. Vermont State Housing Authority, a statewide affordable housing provider, has an exciting opportunity for an individual to join their dedicated team of employees. Position will coordinate & administer case management to Section 8 program participants for a variety of programs. Bachelor’s Degree & a minimum of two years’ work experience in social services with a focus on case management & outreach. Position is home-based & requires working in a field environment with driving on a regular basis. Position is funded based on annual appropriations. Position details, requirements & qualifications at www.vsha.org. Cover letter & resume to: HR, VSHA, 1 Prospect St., Montpelier, VT 05602-3556; or contact@vsha.org. VSHA is an Equal Opportunity Employer.

CLIENT SERVICES
Make a difference by helping individuals & families with their housing needs. Join the Vermont State Housing Authority team, a statewide affordable housing provider. Position open for an organized, reliable individual to perform a variety of technical, clerical, hands-on work related to housing programs. Position includes telephone & public contact work & is based in Montpelier. Must be able to multi-task & work in a fast-paced environment, independently or as part of a team. Position details, requirements & qualifications, at www.vsha.org. Cover letter & resume to: HR, VSHA, 1 Prospect St., Montpelier, VT 05602-3556; or contact@vsha.org. VSHA is an Equal Opportunity Employer.

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Farrington Residents to Buy Mobile Home Park as Co-op

Posted July 10, 2015

Yesterday residents of Farrington’s Mobile Home Park in Burlington announced that they had reached a deal to purchase the property from the Farrington family. The following report from Seven Days explains the agreement and what lies ahead:

Residents of Burlington’s only mobile home park have signed a purchase agreement to buy the land on which their houses are parked.

When the Farrington’s Mobile Home Park went on the market for $5 million last November, its inhabitants worried they’d be displaced by a developer looking to capitalize on the prime real estate. Located just off North Avenue, the 11-acre property with 120 lots offers what is widely considered to be the most affordable home-owning option in a city where the cost of housing has escalated.

Residents voted to form a cooperative, with the goal of purchasing the property themselves. Robert Farrington, one of several family members who inherited the New North End park, told Seven Days at the time that he was “100 percent” in support of their effort.

But the looming question for months was: Could the residents — many of whom are on fixed incomes — actually cobble together the money to make it happen?

Theresa Lefebvre, who’s lived in Farrington’s for three decades, is president of the new North Avenue Co-Op. She announced today that the group signed a purchase agreement with the Farringtons on Tuesday. It had help along the way from the city, nonprofits with experience financing cooperative purchases, and strong state laws protecting mobile park tenants.

Citing the complexity of the deal, she said they don’t expect to close on the sale for another four months and aren’t releasing further details about the transaction in the meantime, including the final price.

The co-op may need to sell a swath of green space at the southern end of the park to raise the necessary money, according to Lefebvre. But members are hoping instead to raise $800,000 through donations, which would allow them to preserve the land as a play area for children and to have a place to pile snow in the winter.

To view the full article, click here.

 



Save the Date: VHCB Fall Conference, October 6th in Burlington

Posted July 9, 2015

The Vermont Housing & Conservation Board is excited to announce their fall conference, ‘Envisioning Vermont 2025’ which will take place on Tuesday, October 6th at the Hilton Hotel in Burlington.

Vermonters want thriving communities, affordable housing options, good jobs and a healthy environment — ideals that align with our collective organizational missions. Our goals for this conference include fostering cross-disciplinary, visionary thinking among attendees and honoring and supporting emerging leaders.

We are planning a mixture of workshops, discussions, field trips and speakers to provide fresh perspectives and inspiration around themes that cross the boundaries between housing and conservation such as energy, climate action and food access.

A special focus of the conference will encourage networking and programming for emerging leaders and mid-career professionals. Please submit the names of co-workers or colleagues you think would benefit. Here is a link to a simple nomination form. Nominations are due by July 20.

We look forward to convening in October for meaningful conversations. In the meantime, PLEASE SAVE THE DATE: OCTOBER 6. Conference details to follow this summer.

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