Keelan: Don’t let State take over local zoning to ‘fix’ the housing crisis

by Don Keelan

Several weeks ago, Representative Seth Bongartz (D-Manchester/Arlington) introduced H.68, a 28-page act “removing State and municipal regulatory barriers for fair zoning and housing affordability.” The good news: Montpelier recognizes that Vermont has a housing crisis. The bad news is that Vermont towns and villages may be letting in a ‘Trojan Horse.’ 

Never lose sight that those in the Statehouse fully subscribe to the “never let a crisis go to waste” mantra of Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago Mayor and now U.S. Ambassador to Japan. In this case, Vermont’s housing crisis. 

Don Keelan

According to writer Emerson Lynn, the Vermont Finance and Housing Agency (one of Vermont’s largest non-profits since 1974) recently noted that Vermont needs to build 40,000 new housing units by 2030, only seven years away. Lynn notes that the bill will ban towns and villages from continuing the intent of single-family housing zoning. 

Some of us have been in the trenches regarding the development, construction, and selling of housing units. In my 50-year career, I brought online over 3,000 units in Vermont and points south. 

From my perspective, the crises in Vermont housing are attributed to not only zoning but a host of issues: a lack of buyer funds for a down payment, insufficient annual income to qualify for a 30-year 90% mortgage with a 6% interest rate (an income of $110,000 is required for a $270,000 mortgage), no municipal wastewater/portable water, lengthy time to gain approvals, and shortage of trades (and if they are available, hourly rates for electricians/plumbers now reaching $100 per hour). 

If more than the above is needed to understand why new housing is so rare, then delivering over 5,000 units yearly is a pipe dream. There are other impediments to consider. Navigating floodplain rules and wetlands regulations is a career in itself. Moreover, it is near impossible to obtain price lock-ins longer than 30 days from concrete, lumber, and other building suppliers. Don’t forget the neighbor, who, acting per se, can hold up a job through litigation for years for fewer than $100. 

See why a 1,000-square-foot house can cost $300,000 or $300 per square foot.

We don’t need the State to step in under the guise of a housing shortage and control local zoning. The State already did this with education when there was a funding crisis; welcome ACT 60/48. Also, the Climate Crisis has justified the State to take over our fossil fuel usage. 

If the Legislature wishes to step in and help alleviate a significant aspect of the housing crisis, they should give more incentives to towns and villages to amend their zoning. The State could also provide loans so towns could administer buyer lines of credit for down payments and second mortgages. 

If one wishes to go to our State schools (or even better, establish an apprentice school) to learn the construction trade, the tuition could be free with a commitment to work in Vermont for five years after graduation. 

The Legislature can make it possible for a neighbor, who brings litigation and is denied, to be responsible for all litigation costs, the cost of delay, and, if determinable, imputed loss of income by the developer. The uncertainty factor for the housing developer in gaining approvals would significantly diminish. 

In years past, the State has taken over our education and mental and health care systems and moved into our homes and businesses under the disguise of a climate crisis. We know too well how our education and mental health care systems are performing. 

We are indeed in another crisis. Hopefully, we can work through it without Montpelier wheeling in its Trojan Horse to take over local zoning by way of H.68.

The author is a U.S. Marine (retired), CPA, and columnist living in Arlington, VT.

Categories: Commentary

6 replies »

  1. And yet the town of Manchester has already obediently changed zoning bylaws in order to accommodate what is/was Obama’s “equitable” housing plan. Manchester and the areas surrounding her will NEVER be the same. There go the outlets, the inns (for they shall eventually house Section 8), AND your own Real Estate property values!!!!

    Thank you, Bongartz. However, your job is to serve ME though, NOT some random “diverse” group of non-residents who YOU think deserve to live in communities I personally worked for & waited decades to be able to purchase within……

    In other news, Martha’s Vineyard, oddly, is procuring whatever steps are necessary to prevent ANY units of low-income housing from being built THERE. It was just in the news this morning.

  2. I think it would be more appropriate to just say that government created all of these problems to begin with, adding more government is adding fuel to the fire.

  3. I agree with Brian. And with every legislation there is another Commission formed and more government employees.
    This is another aspect of the crisis: It took 5 (that I know of) people paid through our tax dollars to manage one herion addict at a rental property. These were the people who interacted with the landlord. It was 3 government employees and 2 from programs that use grants (our tax money) to exist. There is so much waste when governemt pushes papers. This was just the tip of the ‘burg. This herion addict came to Vermont for the free services. When that herion addict left after a 3-4 years, they left behind all their stuff including a refrigerator and cabinets full of gourmet items, whole frozen chickens, fresh fruit and veggies… enough to feed a family of 4 for a month. More wasted tax dollors by well-meaning people donating and helping when many of these people need a sense of responsibility to feel some sort of self-worth.

    Here is another recent example of govt waste and govt adding to a “crisis”: Most private landlords can process a tenant application and get an answer to a prospective tenant within 24-48 hours. Try calling a government run housing operation, one govt operation says on the message that application processing takes up to a month… there is no motivation for that govt employee – their paycheck comes regardless of vacancies.

  4. The bad news is most legislators never see the bait and switch coming, even when it is used time after time to further degrade our existence.

    The good new is, all will most likely collapses soon and we can start building all over again.

    Stop voting for others to represent you, and get involved locally!

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