The need for safe and decent housing is a daily news topic these days – as is the incredible shortage of available housing. We have all heard stories or had first-hand experience with housing that is not safe and habitable – with plumbing or electrical problems, roof leaks, or inadequate heat or ventilation. A bill which will directly address this is currently in the Governor’s hands. S.79, the Rental Housing Safety Bill, will help towns enforce the Rental Housing Health Code in an efficient and low cost manner. We urge the Governor to sign this critical and timely bill.
The Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition (VAHC), represents more than 90 organizations that create, manage, and promote affordable housing, and we strongly support S.79, the statewide rental housing safety bill. The bill has three straightforward actions:
Efficient and Consistent Code Enforcement: S. 79 shifts responsibility for inspections of rental housing from municipalities who do not have full programs to the statewide Department of Fire Safety which is already charged with much of the housing inspection work. Towns are under-resourced with mostly volunteer Town Health Officers. S.79 will make professional inspectors available in all areas of the state. This will protect the most vulnerable Vermonters who are not living in municipalities with periodic inspections and be a resource for property owners wanting to be in compliance. S. 79 moves us forward and reduces the bureaucracy and chaos of having towns enforce the Rental Housing Heath Code, at almost no expense to taxpayers.
Access to Information and Resources: S. 79 creates a much-needed registry of rental units so that the State can communicate with all rental property owners and know where our rental housing is located. Right now, the State has no easy or comprehensive way to let property owners know about availability of programs and financial supports, as well as any changes in the law. This registry will include short-term rentals so we will also know where they are located. There is a $35 per unit annual fee, which is lower than most municipal fees, to pay for the additional staff needed for Fire Safety and the Department of Housing and Community Development. This relieves towns of the unfunded mandate they have now. The registry will provide much-needed data as we plan for housing at the local and regional level.
Rehab Money for Landlords and New Homeowners: S. 79 creates the Vermont Rental Housing Investment Program (VHIP), which this year could provide $5 Million in state administered federal funds to upgrade more than 11,000 substandard and vacant units owned by private landlords. VHIP is badly needed and one of the fastest ways to get new units on line. The bill will also create a resource for first time homeowners to do some rehab to bring homeownership units on line
S. 79 has received support from the Vermont Landlords Association, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, the Vermont Planning and Development Association, Regional Planning Commissions, and the Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness. S.79 does not expand regulation and enforcement but works to make what we have more efficient and accessible.
The legislation, which received strong support in the legislature, is based on years of work and the recommendations of the Rental Housing Advisory Board (RHAB), whose members were appointed by the Governor’s staff. RHAB has a diverse membership representing all stakeholders. Input on the legislation has come with collaboration from many state agencies including the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the Department of Housing and Community Development, the Department of Health, and the Department of Fire Safety.
Governor Scott has been a champion of housing this session, and we are so appreciative of his leadership on this critical and timely issue. Residents of existing homes should have the same benefit of quality affordable housing that residents of new housing will have. Many of the VAHC members interact with these renters every day, and there is such unevenness in the communities with no professional code inspectors. Combining housing code enforcement within one agency will reduce bureaucracy and be more effective than our current system.
Rental housing in Vermont generates almost a $1 billion annually. Rental property owners are operating businesses that are essential to the physical and economic health and wellbeing of tens of thousands of Vermonters. Almost a third of their rental units are already in communities with existing registries and fees. Let’s level the playing field for all renters and rental property owners, no matter where they live, and move forward with an efficient and effective approach. We urge the Governor to sign S. 79, the Rental Safety Housing Bill.
To find out more about VAHC membership please click here; all VAHC members are committed to fair, quality housing.
To find out how to support the rental housing safety bill, click here for our latest Action Alert.
Cindy Reid is the Director of Development at Cathedral Square Corporation and the Chair of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition Steering Committee.