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VT Digger Reports on 2015 VHCB Conference

Posted October 7, 2015

Yesterday the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board held its conference in Burlington. Titled “Envisioning Vermont 2025: Challenges for the Next Decade,” the conference highlighted themes of social justice and collaboration. Below is an excerpt from a report on the conference by Mark Johnson of VT Digger:

Advocates for affordable housing and land conservation wrestled Tuesday with how to collaborate better among themselves and with other social service agencies, as well as how to generate more public understanding and enthusiasm for their work.

While applauding the work that’s been done by the Vermont Housing Conservation Board, speakers at a VHCB conference in Burlington agreed more needs to be done, particularly in affordable housing. They noted that places like Burlington have a 1 percent vacancy rate for renters, with demand outstripping supply and keeping rents high. They also noted home prices make buying a home unaffordable for many, even where two adults are working, and that homelessness has increased.

The Legislature created the VHCB in 1987. Its mission is to help create affordable housing, conserve agricultural and recreation lands, forestland, natural areas and historic properties. Executive Director Gus Seelig said the organization has been able to help leverage more than $1 billion in public and private funding in 28 years for Vermont’s nonprofit housing and conservation organizations.

Since its inception, the trust has received more than $270 million in funding from the state through a dedicated part of the property transfer tax receipts. The group says it has helped keep more than 11,000 homes affordable in Vermont and conserved approximately 400,000 acres of farm, recreational and natural lands.

Many of the more than 200 people who attended the conference framed their work in a broader context, beyond their specific issue, as an effort to promote “social justice.” Instead of viewing me as a housing specialist, said one, view me as someone trying to improve the community.

To continue reading, click here.

 



VT Digger Report on Meeting of the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Posted August 17, 2015

Last week the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a public meeting to discuss housing discrimination in Vermont. Below is an excerpt from a VT Digger report on the panel discussion that took place:

Mary Brown-Guillory, president of the Champlain area National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told a statewide civil rights panel Monday that her organization has received an “avalanche” of discrimination complaints.

In the month since they’ve been “open for business,” Vermont’s first NAACP chapter has received at least 50 complaints. Most involve discrimination, she said, including housing discrimination.

“Individuals do not want to sell their property to people of color,” Brown-Guillory said.

Housing discrimination and possible solutions were the topic of Monday’s panel discussion meant to brief the Vermont State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, according to their website. The commission’s goal is to give information pursuant to the development of national civil rights policy and improve enforcement of federal civil rights laws.

Brown-Guillory said minority college students and recent grads have to use a friend’s name to apply for housing because landlords won’t rent to people with ethnic-sounding names.

Her son, a recent college graduate, wasn’t able to find a landlord willing to rent to him in Vermont because he is African American, she said, and he ended up moving to New York City.

“It is a big concern to me that young people of color are not able to find housing here,” she said. “I mean, I know that we’re trying to diversify the state.” Vermont is among the whitest states in the country with 95 percent white residents, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data.

Brown-Guillory said that she also knows of two instances where people were discriminated against for their religion.

“The property owner makes the decision on who they want to rent to and it doesn’t matter what your credit score is or if you are willing to pay six months’ rent up front,” she said.

Diane Snelling, chair of the Vermont State Advisory Committee to the commission, said in an Aug. 3 press release that past reports by the Vermont State Advisory Committee to the commission have brought about “significant policy changes” in Vermont and that the committee’s review of fair housing issues is “timely and compelling.”

Vermont Legal Aid, a civil rights nonprofit law firm, recently released data from a study conducted by its fair housing program. The study shows preferential treatment toward white residents without children and without an apparent disability, said Marsha Curtis, of Vermont Legal Aid.

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discriminating against an individual because of their race, color, national origin, disability, sex, religion or familial status. Legal Aid’s Housing Discrimination Law Project has found anecdotal evidence of unlawful discrimination in Vermont, said staff attorney Rebecca Plummer.

While conducting the tests related to national origin and race, the discrimination found was often subtle, and sometimes the testers didn’t even know they were being discriminated against, Curtis said. When it came to tests concerning familial status and disability, discrimination was less subtle, she said. Sometimes there were even direct discriminatory statements.

Curtis said this helped to explain why the Housing Discrimination Law Project and the Vermont Human Rights Commission receive more complaints of discrimination based on disability and familial status than race and national origin.

The testing was largely conducted in Chittenden County, and while other areas were tested as well they didn’t have enough statistical data to be compared accurately to Chittenden County, Curtis said.

Plummer said that there should be mandatory fair housing training for all Vermont housing providers.

One of the panelists, David Sagi, an American Disabilities Act program manager, said housing units and apartment complexes in Vermont could be more accessible for elderly or disabled people.

Eight of 10 accessibility audits conducted by Vermont Legal Aid in 2012 and 2013 on newly-constructed, multi-family housing units found some level of noncompliance with the Fair Housing Act’s design and construction accessibility requirements, Curtis said.

To continue reading the article, click here.

 



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.

 



Federal Government Extends Support for SASH Program

Posted October 29, 2014

A recently published article from VTDigger discusses the government’s decision to extend the funding of the SASH (Supportive And Services at Home) program. SASH helps Vermont’s most vulnerable citizens, seniors and individuals with special needs, access the care and support they need to stay healthy while living comfortably and safely at home. SASH is available in many communities throughout Vermont and serves primarily persons 65 and older and persons with disabilities. Participation is voluntary and free of charge. To learn more visit the SASH website here.

From the article:

The federal government recently extended funding for a pilot program that supports Vermont’s Blueprint for Health, a primary care management initiative.

That is welcome news for seniors at Town Meadow Senior Housing in Essex, who benefit from Blueprint’s Support and Services at Home, or SASH, program.

SASH is essentially an extension of Blueprint’s multidisciplinary community health teams, which bring social workers, nurses and therapists into a place like Town Meadow to help seniors live healthier and stay independent.

Town Meadow serves its own residents, but also acts as a hub for seniors living in their own homes who need similar support.

“What’s really great about this program is that it gives us a lot of flexibility,” said Nancy Eldridge, CEO of the nonprofit affordable senior housing company. SASH allows rehab and physical therapy programs to be tailored to seniors needs, with options like tai chi and counseling, she said.

SASH is supported by $700 per person per year payments from Blueprint, which is in turn funded through per member per month payments from commercial insurers, Medicaid and Medicare.

The federal extension of what is known as Multi-Payer Advanced Primary Care Practice ensures that Medicare will continue to make payments to Blueprint.

To read the entire article from VTDigger click here.

 



Mobile Home Parks Slowly Recovering From Irene, while State and Nonprofits Work to Prevent Future Disasters

Posted September 3, 2013

VTDigger has an update on some of the ongoing Irene recovery efforts taking place at many of the state’s mobile home parks:

It’s been two years since Irene, but in some of the mobile home parks that fell in its path, the tropical storm’s impression is still visible in the form of empty lots, outstanding loans and absent neighbors.

Irene damaged 17 of the state’s roughly 250 mobile home parks, flooding 218 homes and destroying 137, according to a University of Vermont study. Whalley Trailer Park in Waterbury and Green’s Trailer Park in Sharon shut down after the storm; the rest are open, though some have had to downsize — Patterson Park in Duxbury, for instance, had 19 lots before the storm but currently only four are filled…

State officials and a number of their nonprofit partners are still concerned about how they’ll fare in the event of another Irene-scale natural disaster.

According to research done by the UVM and the Department of Housing and Community Development, as of 2012, 32 percent of parks have some portion of their property in a floodplain and 12 percent of the mobile home lots in parks are located in a flood hazard area.

Several Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition members have been and are continuing to be involved in recovery efforts.  VAHC also worked closely on getting Act 137 passed by the Vermont Legislature in 2012.  As the VTDigger report states though, there is still a lot of work that remains, not only in recovering from the Irene disaster, but in preparing for the next one.

Link to Full Article on VTDigger.org

PDF of Full Article

 

 

 



VTDIGGER: State fire safety official offers alternative to stricter fire code rules

Posted August 1, 2013

By Hilary Niles. Reposted from VTDigger.org, July 26, 2013

“A recent update to Vermont’s fire code started some people wondering if certain rural construction sites would be permissible — even if developers could afford to install on-site water supplies large enough to comply with the new code.

VTDigger reported on the heightened requirements on July 5.

Bob Patterson, deputy director of the state’s Division of Fire Safety, has since weighed in: If a suburban or rural site cannot fulfill the water supply requirements of the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Code, a different standard from NFPA can be used…”

PDF of Full VTDigger Article

 

 



DCF unveils new emergency housing proposal

Posted July 24, 2013

Vermont housing advocates met with officials from the Department for Children and Families yesterday to discuss revising the agency’s proposal that would limit access to emergency motel vouchers.  The original plan required Vermonters who had not experienced a catastrophic event to meet 6 points on a scale of vulnerability in order to become eligible for a motel voucher.

At yesterday’s meeting, DCF unveiled their new proposal which would maintain the point system, but lower the eligibility threshold to 4 points. Additionally, the plan makes vouchers available to individuals who are 65 or older, have a child age 6 or younger, women in their third trimester of pregnancy, and individuals who have applied for or received SSI/SSDI.

Advocates at yesterday’s meeting generally felt the new proposal was more fair and inclusive, and appreciated the opportunity to collaborate and provide input. Linda Ryan, Director of the Samaritan House in St. Albans, stated, “I think we are way ahead of where we were to begin with. You’ve done a tremendous job of listening to us and adapting.”

Coverage of the story in local media:

Link to VTDigger.org Article, 7/23/2013

WCAX.com, 7/23/2013

Fox44/ABC22 News, 7/23/2013

Seven Days VT – Fair Game, 7/24/2013 

Seven Days VT – The Scoreboard, July 26, 2013

Rutland Herald – July 28, 2013

 

 



VTDigger: State may pull back on new rules governing motel stays for homeless

Posted July 18, 2013

By Alicia Freese. Reposted from VTDigger, July 17, 2013.

The state is revamping a controversial proposal to limit emergency housing in motels for homeless Vermonters.

Commissioner David Yacovone says he is “guardedly optimistic” that the Department of Children and Families will be able to relax the rules that determine who among the state’s homeless can stay in motels when shelters are full.

The standards will still be more stringent than they’ve been in previous years — the Legislature lopped off a large amount from the motel budget — but DCF is revisiting its initial proposal for paring back the program.

DCF was poised to put a temporary fix in place. It had devised a point system, based on 11 categories of eligibility, that would have drastically cut back the number of people who would be eligible for motel vouchers.   

Advocates protested, arguing that the department’s approach would make it nearly impossible for anyone to qualify, and DCF has since backtracked. It pushed the deadline back for implementing new rules and scheduled several meetings for advocates to weigh in…”

Link to Full VTDigger Article 
View PDF of Full VTDigger Article

 



Vermont’s housing authorities feel the impacts of sequestration

Posted June 17, 2013

Public housing authorities in Vermont are feeling the effects of sequestration on already stressed budgets. This results in fewer issued vouchers, reducing access to housing for low-income Vermonters. Representatives from several housing authorities across the state comment on limited funding and losing vouchers in articles from VTDigger and The Commons Online.

Link to VTDigger article 

Link to PDF of Full VTDigger.org article

Link to Full Commons Online Article

Update, 6/26/2013: VPR transcript and audio recording of “Housing Assistance Cuts Affect Low-Income Vermonters”, June 25, 2013

Update, 7/12/2013: St. Albans Messenger, June 20, 2013

 



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