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Hoxworth: Secure Housing is Life Giving

Posted January 12, 2016

Dan Hoxworth, Executive Director of Capstone Community Action, recently wrote an opinion piece published in the Times Argus on how safe and secure housing is vital for one’s well-being:

Throughout its 50 years, Capstone has been the organization where people turn to get their feet back under them when events knock them off their feet. The “housing first” philosophy that is now a best practice emphasizes that securing permanent housing is the first step in stabilizing an individual’s life.

This month, Linda Anderson, Capstone’s manager in Randolph, led an observation of National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day during the winter solstice on Dec. 21 — the longest night of the year. Along with other gatherings around the country, the event was to raise awareness of the tragic impact of homelessness on individuals, families and communities; to remember those who have died as a result of being homeless; and to help everyone understand that homelessness is a public health issue that impacts everyone.

People who are homeless are at greater risk of infectious and chronic illness, poor mental health, and substance abuse. They often wind up in emergency rooms with severe situations that could have been remedied had they had adequate medical care and shelter. The homeless are more often victims of violence and they have a mortality rate four to nine times higher than those who are not homeless. Children are a rapidly increasing part of the homeless population and homelessness is truly traumatic on children and their development. Thus, homeless families and individuals face enormous challenges just to stay alive with little time to improve their situation. We as a society bear the cost in many forms, but most importantly the loss of their potential and far too frequently, their lives.

So, why is there such a housing crisis? Well, in Washington County, the rental housing vacancy rate is about 1.5 percent. This is for all rental housing; not just affordable housing. And to afford an apartment now, the hourly wage needed to pay out the recommended 30 percent of income for housing is $15.25 for a one-bedroom apartment and $18.90 for a two-bedroom apartment. With a minimum wage of $9.60 per hour, many Vermonters pay a disproportionate amount toward their housing and many can’t even find affordable housing. It is even harder for folks with disabilities. The average monthly amount for SSI is $785; the average cost for a one bedroom apartment in Washington County is $728.

At Capstone, our staff is working hard to ensure that everyone has a roof over their heads. In 2015, 1,704 community members who faced homelessness were able to find or hold onto permanent housing through the dedicated efforts of our staff.

We certainly cannot end homelessness on our own.

Even with our best efforts, last year the state of Vermont paid for temporary housing (hotel units) in Barre alone for 140 families with 243 children — 41 of them under 6 years old — and another 173 single people.

To continuing reading, click here. To read another recently published commentary on housing and homelessness in Vermont by Hal Cohen, Secretary of the VT Agency of Human Services, click here.

 



Progress for More Housing Choices

Posted July 23, 2015

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.

 



Editorial: More Housing Now!

Posted June 23, 2015

Nat Frothingham, editor of The Montpelier Bridge, recently wrote an editorial piece discussing the housing situation in Montpelier and what steps can be taken to help. Below is an excerpt:

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.”

To continue reading, click here.

 



Let’s Continue to Invest in State’s Future

Posted March 6, 2015

Caitrin Maloney, executive director of the Stowe Land Trust, wrote this great opinion piece published in the Stowe Reporter on the importance of conservation and the work of the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board. While there are many mentions that are specific to Stowe, these types of conservation efforts are highly valuable statewide. Support and funding of both housing AND conservation are crucial to the future of the state of Vermont:

On Thursday, Feb. 12, I joined folks from all corners of the state for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Coalition’s “Day at the Legislature.” This event celebrated and highlighted the successes conservation and housing groups have made in the past year, and over the past three decades since conservation efforts began in force in the late 1980s.

To open the day, we heard from Gov. Shumlin, who spoke of the unexpected “agricultural renaissance” that is underway in Vermont, citing that for the first time in many decades the number of farms in Vermont is increasing. This reverses a longstanding decline that many folks considered inevitable.

The governor recognized how important this has been to Vermont’s economy: in bringing young entrepreneurs to the state, creating jobs, and resulting in a great diversity of value-added products earning world renown. We have, at the same time, protected elements of the scenic working landscape that are critical to our quality of life and our tourism economy.

The governor was clear as he assigned credit — this simply would not have been possible without conservation, the work of land trusts, support from local communities, and funding allocated through the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

It was wonderful to hear our governor’s solid support for conservation and housing efforts in Vermont, and his call to provide continued funding for these efforts — stating that he didn’t want to “cut the umbilical cord of our future.” But we also heard throughout the day about the enormous state deficit we are facing, and how there are folks in Montpelier who see conservation funding as a “luxury item” to be quickly written off in tough budget times.

Why fund conservation when there are so many other areas of need? I have a very simple answer: The land is everything, and when the land is lost, all is lost. Skimping on conservation is a failure to invest in our children’s future, and a promise to leave them with something less, something diminished.

The land is what our communities are built upon. It sustains our ecology, our farms, our working forests, our recreation, our tourism, and ultimately our economy. Development and growth are also important parts of our communities and economy, but unchecked development with no balancing force can destroy the sustaining aspects of the land.

Stowe is particularly vulnerable — it’s a desirable place to live, and land values are high. In Stowe, farmland used to “grow houses” instead of corn or hay and could offer a much bigger monetary gain. Forests are vulnerable to incremental development, resulting in fragmented, Swiss-cheese forests that no longer offer quality habitat for our wildlife. “No Trespassing” signs inevitably pop up in this fragmented landscape, and the places where people recreate and find solitude are also lost.

This is where conservation comes in — with support from the community and state and federal funding, conservation can offer an alternative future.

It’s sometimes easy to take conservation successes for granted, and it can be hard to picture what Stowe’s landscape would look like today without land protection. Today’s Stowe features open farmland, expanses of unbroken forest, and many places open to the public for hiking, skiing, mountain biking and bird-watching. In total, Stowe Land Trust has protected more than 3,500 acres of land, with many more acres protected by the Vermont state government and other groups. It’s clear Stowe would be a very different place without conservation.

We have had great success with conservation in Stowe; however, our work in not done. While more than 650 acres of agricultural land is protected, less than 10 percent of the prime agricultural soil in Stowe has been protected, and estimates show more than 2,000 acres of working farmland are still vulnerable to development. Nearly 50 percent of the Worcester Range forest block remains unprotected. This important expanse of unbroken forest habitat provides the scenic backdrop above Stowe Hollow and features a regionally important wildlife corridor.

In 1987, the Legislature passed the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund Act, which created a fund dedicated to conservation and housing efforts, and a group to administer the fund. Appropriately, the dedicated source of these funds is property transfer tax revenues. Since its inception, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board has awarded nearly $260 million in funds, directly leveraging about $860 million from other private and public sources. This investment resulted in the creation of more than 10,500 affordable homes, conservation of 390,740 acres of land, and restoration of 56 historic community buildings for public use.

In Stowe, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board has contributed more than $2 million to 10 projects on more than 1,200 acres of land. That funding provided critical leverage to local support from the Stowe town government and private donors. It’s safe to say that the protection of Cady Hill Forest and Adams Camp — which offer huge recreational opportunism, tourism benefits, wildlife habitat and working forestland — would not have been possible without funding from the board.

At this critical juncture, let’s not falter. Though there is much success to celebrate, there is much yet to be done. Let’s continue to rally behind conservation, and back it up with the essential statewide funding necessary to get the job done.

For a link to the originally published piece in the Stowe Reporter, click here.

 



IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Times Argus Editorial – On being mediocre

Posted April 9, 2013

Reposted from the Barre Montpelier Times Argus, March 29, 2013.

“The Rule of Demonstrable Mediocrity prevails in places where the paramount concern is to save money. Those who believe the public interest sometimes demands more than the minimal expenditure of money know that the rule maintains a tenacious hold…

One example is the administration’s plan to change the state’s principal welfare program, Reach Up, which is designed to move low-income residents from welfare to work…Only a tiny fraction of Reach Up participants ever reach the five-year limit, but it can be surmised that they are the most troubled or impaired among the program’s job seekers and there are probably good reasons, beyond laziness, why they have been unable to achieve independence. Yet the new strictures on the program would throw their lives into chaos and impose unnecessary hardships…”

Link to Full Times Argus Editorial

View PDF of Full Times Argus Editorial