This legislative session’s major housing bill drew a lot of attention last month for its impacts on Act 250 reform and single-family zoning. But housing advocates also see the bill as a chance to protect people who would otherwise be homeless — by telling towns they can’t prevent hotels from renting rooms to those in a state emergency assistance program.
The “Housing Opportunities Made for Everyone” — or HOME — bill would also prohibit municipalities from interfering with efforts to set up emergency shelters. The measure overwhelmingly passed the Senate last month and has been widely supported by housing groups looking to deal with the state’s persistent housing crisis. In recent weeks, legislators have been hearing testimony on the bill.
Vermont has a shortage of 40,000 housing units, has the second-highest homelessness rate in the country and the lowest vacancy rate in the country, according to Anne Sosin, interim director for the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.
“Vermonters are entering homelessness faster than they’re exiting it, and we are concerned that these numbers will only continue to grow as pandemic supports come to an end this year,” said Sosin.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, motels and hotels have been providing housing for 1,800 households through the state’s emergency general assistance program, people who would otherwise be homeless, according to Alison Calderara, chief of programs and advancement for Capstone Community Action.
Said Sosin: “Hotels play a critical role in sheltering Vermonters experiencing homelessness. More than 80% of Vermonters experiencing homelessness are shelters and motels. There’s a critical gap in that motel shelter capacity.”
Emergency shelters across the state have provided resources and housing in the last few years too. But proposed shelters in the past have been shot down by restrictive zoning rules or outright bans in some communities.
“We have heard of examples around the state where emergency shelters have not moved forward because there have been barriers for zoning and permitting,” said Katarina Lisaius, senior advisor to the commissioner for the Department for Children and Families. “The idea of not limiting the language for emergency shelters in S.100 is to not have zoning and permitting limit the viability of a shelter in hours or seasonality.”
Groups that work with Vermonters struggling to find housing also worry about the July 1 ramp down of the Emergency General Assistance Program, the Covid-era policy that is funding folks’ stays in hotels and motels. But advocates are hopeful the deadline will push legislators to act fast.
“I think that in terms of where we are right now, particularly with the pandemic programs ending, we’re in a serious place,” Calderara said.
She added: “I know that legislators care deeply about this, and they’re paying attention to this and recognizing that inadvertently … regulations that we put into place many years ago, in a different time, are now working against us, and that it’s reasonable for us to re-look back at some of these rules that we may have set up and think these aren’t working for us anymore.”