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McClaughry: Working out of the housing crisis

by John McClaughry

The recent discussion of “Vermont’s housing crisis” reminds us that this problem never goes away. That’s because the interests active in shaping housing policy continue to be far apart on almost any policy change that promises more affordable housing.

My first experience in this subject came in 1972. I sponsored a House bill whose purpose was “to encourage the Vermont building industry to increase the supply of housing within the reach of the average Vermont family by removing the barrier posed by a multiplicity of different building codes, each containing local embellishments and some deliberately used to keep out new moderate income housing.”

The bill also provided for state certification of manufactured housing and mobile homes as code-compliant, and updated a building code law largely unchanged since 1904.

John McClaughry

The House passed the bill on a voice vote, triggering alarm at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Some of its larger municipalities saw a stringent building code as a way to discourage new housing for young families producing children that town taxpayers would have to educate. The Senate defeated the bill on a 13-14 vote.

Over the ensuing half-century the housing controversy has played out in various forms.

Once viewed as a way to avoid public nuisances and efficiently accommodate growth with roads, schools, water and sewer, zoning in developing communities all too often has been reconceived as a tool to protect the residents against the suspected burden of newcomers. This leads to “I’m aboard, pull up the gangplank” zoning that creates obstacles to growth.

Development of ten or more houses faces the ordeal of Act 250. As  I wrote two years ago, “even developers willing to meet the development criteria of Act 250 do not dare to expose themselves and their capital to a regulatory process with no predictable end, infested with well-lawyered adversaries determined to thwart their every move.”

If the site is out in the countryside, and thus easily buildable, enviro organizations will show up to demand protection of wildlife transit corridors, cyclists’ views of the Lake, and protection of possible indigenous people’s artifacts (known as “compliance archeology)”. The Climate Council will object to new housing out in the country because the residents will have to drive to their jobs, shopping and schools, thereby releasing emissions aggravating the declared climate emergency.

But for a Scott veto (of H.606) the State would be required to “conserve” 50% of Vermont’s land area from the depredations of human occupation by 2050. Rural land is “conserved” when the state and Federal government owns it, or an environmental organization or trust owns it, or you own it, but can’t build housing or in fact do much of anything with it except pay taxes on it.

There are numerous tax benefits for creating housing in neighborhood centers, but that opportunity comes with compliance headaches. Converting disused college dormitories and building on vacant state land would offer some progress. So would community land trusts, that stabilize land value in exchange for limiting future sales of improvements.

Then there’s the special problem of Vermont’s 2,780 homeless people, on whom the State has spent $455 million over the past six years. The emergency rental assistance program and other Federal subventions create little or no needed housing. They just give money to qualified people to occupy housing they can’t otherwise afford.

Let’s give Burlington credit for doing the best they can. Last week the mayor announced the installation of 25 little dwelling pods for the homeless, But as the Auditor’s office ruefully observed in a recent report, “Vermont is not building its way out of the problem.”

There is no bold-stroke solution to this persisting problem with its conflicting interests. Giving the Vermont Public Housing Authority irresistible power to create and finance public housing all over the state is (I hope) an idea that even the most enthusiastic advocate for expanding government power would pause before embracing. Rent control, a chronic favorite of progressives, is provably destructive to increasing the rental housing supply.

The opposite policy, shrinking the reach of regulatory bodies that can impose costly conditions and mandatory cross subsidies, moves in the right direction. Any such step, of course will invite stiff resistance from the interests that insist on installing heating systems that don’t make use of gas and fuel oil, and those who really don’t want a lot of new housing at all.

 If Vermont fails to move down this path, decent new housing will increasingly be available only to the custom-building rich and the increasingly subsidized families who used to, and ought to, be able to pay their own way.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).

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