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DCF Says New Program Cuts Down On Homeless Motel Vouchers

Posted March 17, 2016

This week, the Vermont Department for Children & Families released a Budget Adjustment Report on Housing and Shelter Assistance to the Vermont Legislature. To view the report, click here. Below is commentary from VPR on the report:

State efforts to reduce the number of people who use motels for emergency housing have been effective, according to a report released this week by the Department for Children and Families.

Last winter, the state saw a significant increase in the number of people who were forced to use the motel voucher program for emergency housing.

Since then, the state put resources into developing alternative housing options across the state, and alternative shelters were set up in Burlington, St. Johnsbury and Middlebury.

Those efforts, according to the report, led to sharp reductions in traffic and significant savings.

Data for all of this winter are not yet available, but if projections hold, the state will spend about $3.9 million this winter, compared to the $4.3 million it spent last year.

The unusually mild winter also might have contributed to the decrease, the report says.

The state is putting resources into alternative housing programs across the state, and it hopes to broaden the services even further next year.

For a full link to this article, click here.


Vogel: Housing Legislation

Posted March 3, 2016

Yesterday, VPR featured commentary from John Vogel on housing legislation:

In 2014, the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development hired Bowen National Research to conduct a statewide housing needs assessment. The study concluded that Vermont has a significant housing shortage, especially for families and seniors who make less than $20,000 per year.

By my calculation, at the current rate at which we’re building affordable housing, we’ll need at least 125 years to overcome this shortage. And that assumes that the number of low income seniors and families doesn’t increase.

Vermonters may disagree about how much of our tax dollars should go into housing and how much should go into other worthy programs. But I think that all Vermonters would agree that we shouldn’t waste precious housing resources and good development opportunities.

That’s why I was pleased when some of our State Representatives including Jim Masland, Allison Clarkson and William Bostow introduced bills to streamline the process for developing affordable housing. All three bills are modeled after legislation that works successfully in other states, and in the case of H123, works successfully in 49 other states. Best of all, none of these pieces of legislation requires any additional money.

Perhaps I’m naïve, but after what happened in Woodstock, where a 28 unit project was delayed for nine years costing Vermont Taxpayers well over a million dollars in extra legal fees, interest payments and the like, I’d hoped that the legislature would step up and fix the problem. Representatives Masland, Clarkson and Bostow looked at what other states do and came up with some important improvements.

What surprises me is that none of these proposals seems to be gaining much traction. As Representative Masland explained, it takes time to build a coalition.And it’s hard to pass new legislation during an election year.

But I wish our legislators would visit the beautiful, affordable homes in Woodstock and ask the residents how they spent the last nine years while they were waiting for these homes to get built.

I also wish our legislators would talk to families and seniors living in motels or in their cars, ask them how they’re enjoying the winter and then explain that they will get decent housing if they can just hold on for another 125 years.

For a link to the original article, including audio, click here.


VHFA Seeks To Extend Assistance For First-Time Home Buyers

Posted February 3, 2016

The Vermont Housing Finance Agency is seeking to extend their down-payment assistance program, which began last August. Through this program, first-time home buyers can get up to $5,000 in down payment assistance. The zero-interest loan is then paid back when the home is sold or the mortgage is refinanced. While the program is currently funded for 3 years, an extension of the program would help build a revolving loan fund. To learn more, read the article from VPR below:

The Vermont Housing Finance Agency says a down-payment assistance program is meeting its goal of helping first-time homebuyers purchase houses, and they’d like the program extended.

“We started at the end of August, really early September getting it fully funded and ready to go. So far we’ve closed about 60 loans. We had actually projected somewhere around the 110 mark, but I think we’re going to exceed that by the end of June,” says Executive Director Sarah Carpenter.

The legislature funded the program for three years, and Carpenter would like additional funding to continue the program for five years so it could become a revolving loan fund.

“Our main concern is we won’t start getting loan paybacks until after the fifth year, and so we have this dilemma that after the third year, we may have no proceeds to re-lend to people, or very little,” Carpenter said. “We’re just trying to have it be in sync with the average life of a loan, which is five to seven years.”

First-time homebuyers can get up to $5,000 in down payment assistance. The zero-interest loan is re-paid when the home is sold or the mortgage is re-financed.

VHFA has been closely tracking data from the program. The average first-time homebuyer is 31 years old with a household income of $61,000. The average home purchase price is $156,840, with $4,500 in down payment assistance. Of the 60 loans that have closed so far, 14 percent of the homebuyers have purchased condominiums.

Vermonters who make up to $100,000 per year qualify for the VHFA program.

For a link to the article, click here.


First-Time Homebuyers Eligible For $5,000 In Down Payment Assistance

Posted June 12, 2015

Earlier this week, Sarah Carpenter of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency discussed their new program that will provide down-payment assistance to first time homebuyers on VPR:

First-time home buyers in Vermont are getting some help with the expenses that come with buying a house. Legislation signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin last week includes up to $5,000 for closing costs and down payments.

That program will be administered by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, but VHFA doesn’t directly lend money to homebuyers. Instead, they work with participating lenders like credit unions and community banks. “They’ll go into one of those institutions, be qualified for one of the VHFA programs and it would be there that they’ll get the down-payment assistance”, said VHFA executive director Sarah Carpenter. The down payment assistance money will be paid back as a zero interest loan when the home is sold or refinanced.

Low and moderate income Vermonters who make up to $100,000 qualify for the VHFA programs. “We understand that many working families are in that range searching for a home,” Carpenter said.

“What we’re seeing these days is just an increase in closing cost fees, down payment requirements and for a lot of home buyers, especially young families, saving that cash is very difficult. They’ve got student loans to pay, they’re paying high rents, so it’s a real sort of cash flow problem, getting the cash up front to buy that first home is very problematic,” Carpenter said, adding that VHFA sees many eligible homebuyers still renting apartments.

For the full report, including audio, click here.


Latest Budget Cut Could Harm Affordable Housing Sector

Posted May 7, 2015

This week. VPR spoke with several affordable housing advocates about Governor Shumlin’s new proposed plans for cutting the state’s budget and how they may cause damage to the affordable housing sector, including VAHC coordinator Erhard Mahnke:

“The way this has been presented by the administration is that this is a cut that will really only affect middle-income people, and they have other places they can go to get energy efficiency funds to make improvement to their homes,” says Erhard Mahnke, coordinator of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition. “And nothing could be further from the truth.”

Mahnke says the weatherization funds often provide a critical piece of financing for rehabilitation of old affordable housing stock, as well as the construction of new units.

“When you’re taking these monies … away from the Vermont Fuel Efficiency Partnership, you’re removing one of the key sources that helps to stabilize housing costs over the future, for both the nonprofit operator and the low-income residents that benefit from it,” Mahnke says.

Mahnke says the program funds improvements for as many as 500 units a year. He says the heating costs that are saved are vital to the residents, half of whom report average annual incomes of $17,000. Take away the weatherization money, and Mahnke says the state will stall production of needed affordable housing capacity.

“And we need more affordable housing,” Mahnke says. “This is death by a thousand cuts. And it’s going to make it that much more difficult for us to make headway in the battle against homelessness.”

For the full article, including audio, click here.


Spring Creates New Challenges For Vermont’s Homeless

Posted April 21, 2015

While there is much talk about the challenges that winter creates for Vermont’s homeless, with spring comes a new set of challenges. In this VPR report Elizabeth Ready, director of the John Graham Shelter in Vergennes, discusses some of the challenges homeless providers face once the seasons change and winter emergency shelter programs end:

Although nights may not be as bitter cold, new challenges face Vermont’s homeless population now that spring has sprung.

Elizabeth Ready, director of the John Graham Shelter in Vergennes, sees those challenges every day and is working to help find a safe, permanent home for Vermont’s homeless population.

Warmer nights mean an end to warming shelters throughout the state. “That means that some people are immediately looking to get into permanent shelter,” says Ready. “So we do see a little bit of an increase at this time as people that were formerly spending the night in the warming shelters are looking for a place to go.”

Ready says that there are people who camp once it warms up, but that many don’t think camping is the best idea for homeless families and youth. “Another thing is that many of the people in the warming shelters have illnesses that really should preclude them from being outside,” says Ready. She explains that at the shelter right now, there are people with emphysema, MS and cancer. “Our youngest person is a newborn and our oldest is 74. You see people with mental illness, people that need medication management, so more and more people that are seeking shelter are not necessarily healthy people who can just go out and thrive outside. So I think that the end goal always has to be permanent, safe, stable housing,” says the shelter director.

Ready says that Vermont has seen a recent increase in homeless families. “It’s a pretty simple formula: The cost of housing exceeds people’s ability to pay, even when people are working. A lot of people are working now at the shelter, mostly everybody, but they may be working at a fast food place, supermarket, on the farm, in the nursing home … and they’re just not making enough to pay the rent.”

Rent is expensive, says Ready, especially in Chittenden and Addison County, and it’s hard for people to compete with students and young professionals in the housing market. “What we try to do is work with people to bridge the gap, whether it means employment, or getting a housing choice voucher or Vermont rental subsidies, whatever it’s going to take.”

Ready says the young homeless population, especially in the LGBT community, is especially vulnerable. “They may be healthy and young, but people are very vulnerable … to abuse, they are vulnerable to being taken advantage of, so we really don’t like to see youth camping, especially in the LGBT population, because we just don’t want to see any harm come to them,” says Ready. “The thing is to create really safe spaces where people feel supported, people feel that they have a sense of community, a sense of belonging. So, it’s really more than just a room or just a shelter, it’s a sense that they belong somewhere.”

And that’s exactly what Ready tries to do at the John Graham Shelter in Vergennes – create a safe space. She says her excellent staff, all thoroughly screened before being hired, are at the shelter 24 hours per day, seven days a week, and that they have counselors with substance abuse backgrounds available to talk at all hours of the day. “We also just have a really safe environment at night. There are deadlines that people have to be in and there is staff there all around the clock and there are always people there who can sit down and help you try to problem solve, whether it’s a housing issue or trying to get a ride to work, just try to work things out,” she says.

One thing that Ready says keeps her hopeful and has been a “tremendous help” to the shelter is Vermont’s rental subsidy program. “It has been a lifesaver for a lot of people. What happens is if we get a shelter full of people and we can’t move them, especially in the winter, it becomes a destitute situation. People don’t have much hope, they don’t know how they’ll get out … So we what we do is work with this rental subsidy,” Says Ready. She explains that although anyone can apply, it is scored, so those who are working with children often get the highest scores. “We’ve been able to really help people get into units of their own and then we follow them with case management resources, make sure they are paying the rent, helping them to be good tenants, and then at the end of the year they are hopefully going to move on and be independent,” she says.

Ready says that in Vermont, people understand that everyone needs a warm, safe space indoors. “More and more people are getting the idea that this is the kind of suffering we don’t want our neighbors to go through,” she says.

To view the full article, including audio, click here.


New Collaboration To Provide Mental Health Services To Homeless

Posted April 15, 2015

Vermont Public Radio reports on a collaboration between Brattleboro Retreat and Morningside Shelter that will help to provide mental health services to homeless individuals:

A collaboration between a homeless shelter and a psychiatric hospital in Brattleboro has a goal of preventing a mental health crisis, and improving the mental health of the homeless population.

Brattleboro Retreat and Morningside Shelter will bring a therapist to the shelter two days a week.

The two non-profits started planning a year ago after a community event where a group from Pennsylvania came to talk about their efforts to provide mental health services to homeless people.

“We were both interested in helping this complicated problem of mental health and substance abuse problems that often go untreated or under-treated in the homeless population,” said Kurt White, director of outpatient services at the Retreat.

The counselor is providing a mix of formal counseling services and informal support. Those informal services include, “things like being around in the milieu of the shelter, sometimes having meals with folks, coming to meetings, hanging out in common areas and making themselves available to talk when people need to talk. Also, running classes on things like managing stress while looking for a job or managing the stress of parenting while you are living in a homeless shelter,” White explained.

The therapist will also provide formal counseling services for mental health and substance abuse problems.

“We’re reaching people who might not otherwise be reached. One of the things that keeps me up at night is that so many people with mental health and substance problems never get help for the problems that they have,” White said. “Those who come in for treatment, we can help them really well. Effectiveness of treatment is very good. But the people that we can’t get in the front door, even for a single session, we don’t help them very well. You can’t treat an empty chair as the old saying goes. This program helps to try to engage people that wouldn’t otherwise be engaged and they’re some of Vermont’s most vulnerable people.”

The goal of the program is to connect people with more permanent services with providers in the community, like the Retreat, and Health Care and Rehabilitation Services. Many people are not ready for those services initially because of the disruption in their lives, White said, but if they have a positive initial experience of counseling, they will hopefully be able to get the on-going services they need when they stabilize.

“There’s a lot of alcohol abuse, opiate, cocaine abuse in Vermont these days and it’s over-represented in populations that are homeless. There’s a lot of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder among clients in homeless populations, people who have experienced early abuse or abuse in adulthood, often depression and anxiety disorders are also fairly common, and also psychotic disorders, things like schizophrenia or thought disorders where people have things like hallucinations, delusions,” White said.

This project is funded by a $20,000 grant from the Vermont Community Foundation’s Innovations and Collaborations program. White said the Retreat and Morningside Shelter hope to find a way to continue the program after the one-year grant runs out.

For the full report, including audio, click here.


The Unique Challenges Facing Vermont’s Homeless Population

Posted March 18, 2015

Yesterday VPR spoke with Paul Dragon, director of the Vermont Office of Economic Opportunity, to discuss some of the challenges that arise for those who face homelessness in a rural state like Vermont. Barriers such as limited transportation options, low housing availability, and extremely cold winters add extra challenges for the homeless and those who are working to help them. Read some of the information he provided below and for the full report, including audio, click here:

On the numbers

“There were 1,556 people in Vermont who were unsheltered, in emergency shelter or in transitional housing on the night of Jan. 28, 2014 … We know that about 24 percent, or 371 were children, and we also know that many of them have disabilities and many are victims of domestic violence as well.”

On uniquely rural challenges

“Transportation, access to good, quality, affordable child care, access to employment and then of course housing that is suitable to people, and housing that is available and affordable as well — all those things are magnified when you have people living in rural areas, and you don’t have that kind of transportation hub, and you don’t have the employment opportunities.”

On what’s being done

“We’ve got an incredible network of services working to put people into permanent housing, transitional housing and, of course, our emergency shelter system. And we’ve got service providers who are doing a range of work from service coordination and case management to mental health counseling and substance abuse work. We have a great program called Family Supportive Housing where we take families who are experiencing homelessness, put them in permanent housing and then provide really intensive support services, and that includes some financial empowerment services. We’re actually helping people create savings accounts and teaching them how to manage their money.”

On the Housing First approach

“It’s hard to work on many of the other issues, particularly finding employment or getting someone’s diabetes or hypertension under check, or getting them to counseling for substance or mental health, if they don’t have a home … So that is a big component of Housing First. Let’s get people stabilized, get them in a home, and then we can work on these other issues.”

On stigma versus systemic problems

“I don’t necessarily want to suggest that people who are experiencing homelessness have all these mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence issues, although those things are there. But again, it’s a function of the economy. There are low wages, people are living in poverty, housing is extremely expensive and the cost of living is extremely expensive. So those are the systemic issues that we have to go after as well, not just thinking in terms of the systems.”

On the effort to move people out of “homeless hotels”

“You know as I, we’re working hard and trying to get people out of the hotels for a couple of different reasons. Hotels are a more expensive option, and we also don’t think they’re the best service option either. You know, it’s beyond just keeping [people] warm. It’s also trying to get them into permanent housing, get them stable so we can really work on the other issues that keep them from being housed in the first place.”

Along with this story, VPR also profiled the John Graham Shelter in Vergennes and the efforts they are making to help end homelessness in their community. To read more about them and the work they are doing click here.


Rent-To-Own A Raw Deal For Poor People, Lawmakers Say

Posted February 5, 2015

Yesterday VPR reported on new legislation that would cap interest on rent-to-own purchases and require stores to clearly indicate the total price that the consumer will pay after installments to own each item. Advocates argue that these businesses target low-income consumers who also often lack proper financial education. Many lawmakers also agree that it is time to impose stricter regulations to protect those who are most vulnerable:

The rent-to-own industry has mushroomed into an $8.5 billion business nationwide. But advocates for low-income Vermonters say that stores like Rent-A-Center are profiting too heavily from the desperate circumstances of poor people.

This script from a television commercial for Rent-A-Center is designed to get people in the door:

“Red hot deals are here at Rent-A-Center. Right now you can make the hottest brands yours for as low as $17.99 per week … Choose a red hot deal on a new 50” Toshiba LED Smart TV, only $19.99 per week.”

And East Montpelier resident Brenda Brown says it works.

“That’s where it gets you. That’s where people go in and, like, OK yeah, we can rent, you know, hey, I can afford that or $12 a month,” Brown says.

Brown speaks from experience. And she shared her story with the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Wednesday morning.

Brown has long since returned most of her rented goods, having learned she’d end up paying three or four times their retail price if she ever wanted to own them. But she says her low-income peers – Brown lives exclusively on disability payments – aren’t as wise to the marketing ploys of places like Rent-A-Center, or Aaron’s, the two companies that dominate the rent-to-own sector in Vermont.

“If you don’t have the money, yes, it’s there, but in the long run they’re getting you one way or another,” Brown says.

People who can least afford premium prices on retail goods are those most attracted to rent-to-own deals, advocates say. Credit history is a non-issue. And for very little money down, they can outfit their apartments with a washer and dryer, bedroom set, or flat screen television – items they might never be able to afford in a store.

But Tory Emery, a social worker at Upper Valley Haven in White River Junction, says stores aren’t doing enough to make sure low-income, and often financially illiterate consumers, know about the above-market prices they’re actually paying.

“People in poverty are vulnerable,” Emery says. “They’re vulnerable to seeing a shiny carrot placed in front of them that they can have what other people have.”

Senate lawmakers are considering legislation that would require rent-to-own stores to spell out more clearly for customers the all-in price of retail goods, by totaling the aggregate price of all the weekly payments that would be needed to own the item. They also want to cap the “interest rate” stores can earn on a sale. The magazine Consumer Reports found in 2011 that rent-to-own agreements feature weekly payments that can result in consumers paying the equivalent of more than 300 percent interest on retail purchases. Lawmakers think the number should be capped at 24 percent.

To view the entire article and listen to the audio coverage click here.


Why Aren’t Vermont Millennials Buying Homes?

Posted November 24, 2014

At last week’s Vermont Statewide Housing Conference John Pelletier of Champlain College and Anthony Poore of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston presented at a workshop titled “Homeownership’s Lost Generation.” Vermont Public Radio reported on what they had to say about why fewer of Vermont’s millennials are buying homes:

Vermonters in the millennial generation are often seen as a success story in a state that has struggled to attract and retain young people. But cultural and economic trends mean millennials in the state are still falling short on the housing market.

It’d be hard to name any one reason why young people aren’t buying homes in Vermont. Some are leaving the state, some are still too young to be expected to buy a home; others still live with their parents.

John Pelletier is the director of the Champlain College Center for Financial Literacy. He said one of the big factors is college debt.

“If you’re a college grad with student loan debt in those age categories of 29 and under, less of you own a home than if you didn’t go to college, ” he said.

And Pelletier said two-thirds of students who graduate from college in Vermont end up in debt.

“Of that two-thirds that that had student loan debt, their average debt was approximately $29,000 or just a little bit under that,” he said.

Speaking at the Vermont Statewide Housing Conference in Burlington, Pelletier and Anthony Poore of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston said it’s not just the numbers that are keeping young people from buying houses.

Poore said there were also some cultural differences between millennials and their parents.

“You know, these folks watched their parents lose their homes,” he said. “These people saw their parents have to try to figure out everything they could to stay in their homes, so they’re beginning to ask themselves, really, is homeownership really all that?”

Despite what Pelletier called the generation’s “failure to launch,” the stats show millennials still plan on owning a home at some point.

“Everybody wants a home,” he said. “So this generation has failed to launch so far, but I think fundamentally it’s a reasonable expectation that they’re going to want a home.”

The results of a recent survey from NeighborWorks America on homeownership had similar findings, with 49% of respondents who have student loan debt saying it was an obstacle when it comes to purchasing a home.


For the full article from VPR, including audio, click here. For full results of the NeighborWorks survey click here.


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