The Vanishing Vermont Single-Family Home

Legislature sees duplex, quadplex as housing shortage solution. Part One in a Three Part Series

UnSplash photo by Brie Odom

By Guy Page

A fast-tracked Senate bill now in the Vermont House would further slacken the already slow pace of new, single-family home (SFH) construction.  

S100 instead offers powerful regulatory support for new construction of duplexes and quadplexes. Local parking, lot size, water/septic, and other regulations once limited to new single-family construction would be expanded to include multi-family housing. Convert a garage into ‘accessory housing’? Sure. 

S100 is about ‘infill’ – adding housing to already-developed neighborhoods, especially urban cores. What it’s not about is incentivizing traditional, single-family housing developments in rural areas. Because a new, traditional SFH is 1) expensive – the median new home purchase price in Vermont is $554,000, and in Chittenden County small new SF homes in South Burlington cost closer to $800,000. Even in Milton, long a starter-home heaven for young families, new SF homes now cost between $400-500,000. 

The same homes might be cheaper if built in a retiring farmer’s pasture in rural Vermont, but in a climate-minded Legislature likely to pass a bill requiring 50% of total land area be protected from development by 2050, suburban sprawl outside of Chittenden County is unlikely. 

So infill, it is. And the cost of land and materials, the shrinking size of families, and legislative preferences for low-carbon living being what they are, that means more duplexes and quadplexes and fewer SFH’s – and fewer garages, too. 

S100 and a companion House bill H68 are the Vermont Legislature’s latest attempted response to the call for more housing. A critical housing shortage, with many causes and many years in the making, contributes to an acute worker shortage (nowhere for new hires to live) and growing numbers of homeless people (nowhere for them to live either, even working people with means). 

And although none of these bills’ legislative sponsors and lobbyists are saying so explicitly, incentivizing duplexes and quadplexes are shifting the focus away from building new, single-family homes – the kind of homes most Vermonters living and dead were raised in, and most legislative leaders live in now. 

On February 23, S100, the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee bill called “An act relating to housing opportunities made for everyone” was introduced into the Vermont Senate. Upon a motion by Committee Chair Kesha Ram-Hinsdale, the rules requiring a one-day waiting period before voting were suspended. The bill has been under review by the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee all week. 

If it clears the Senate, S100 will go to the House. At a press conference yesterday, Ram Hinsdale said she looks forward to working with the House on her bill. She then introduced  Housing Committee Chair Tom Stevens, who said:  “Housing is a vaccine…It’s health care. It’s about stability, about getting people into homes so that they can be stable, and the costs related to negative outcomes are lowered.” 

The 53-page S100 appropriates almost all of H68, the House housing bill introduced by Rep. Seth Bongartz (D-Manchester), a former state senator. Both bills require municipalities to:

Downgrade minimum parking requirements: “Not require more than one parking space per dwelling unit or accessory dwelling unit.” That’s down from the current 1.5 minimum. This change moves urban society away from reliance on cars (long a goal of climate-minded urban planners). It also reallocates garage and parking lot space to living space. You might say it robs Peter Parking to buy Paul an extra bedroom. 

Ease changing car garages to housing – In the same anti-vehicular, in-fill spirit, the legislation requires that converting “accessory” buildings (AKA garages) to housing face no higher municipal regulatory burden than conventional housing. 

Apply SFH building dimensions, water/septic regs to multi-family units – S100 states that “duplexes shall be an allowed use with the same dimensional standards as a single-unit dwelling. In any district that is served by municipal sewer and water infrastructure that allows residential development, multi-unit dwellings with four or fewer units shall be an allowed use.”

S100’s likely impacts on city water and sewer spillovers has raised the ire of longtime Lake Champlain water quality advocate James Ehlers. The implacable Ehlers routinely reports municipal wastewater system dumping into Lake Champlain, and he sees holding multi-family housing to the same standard as SFH as a recipe for further incidents. 

“Here on the banks of the unswimmable, unfishable, undrinkable Winooski River, it is abundantly clear, no Princeton PhD necessary, that there is no separating the life cycle from the water cycle,” Ehlers said. 

This week’s Senate Natural Resources and Energy testimony on S5 has done nothing to assuage Ehlers’ concerns.

“Perhaps the whole Natural Resources committee should be disbanded so we can forgo the pretense that protection of the natural world matters at all to this Senate, saving both the taxpayers money and senators the embarrassment of participating in a charade,” Ehlers said. “Honest debate is all that I and others ask for and that is not possible with a chair stacking witness testimony to advantage close-minded members and special interests requesting senators speak off camera.  You can watch it here.”

The legislation also prohibits municipalities from enacting tougher energy building standards than allowed by state law, and gives some small developments a pass on appearing before local zoning boards. Waiving both of these restrictions is likely to make urban duplex and quadplex construction more affordable. 

S100 also allocates $25 million to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to address many housing needs: “provide affordable mixed-income income rental housing and homeownership units; improvements to manufactured homes and communities; recovery residences; and, if determined eligible, housing available to farm workers and refugees. VHCB shall also use the funds for shelter and permanent homes for those experiencing homelessness in consultation with the Secretary of Human Services.”

Next in this three part series: quality of life pros and cons of single-family vs. multi-family homes, and how Vermont’s legislative leaders choose to house themselves. Then: how reduced access to single family homes will affect Vermonters in the future. 

Categories: Housing

18 replies »

  1. Vermont is getting exactly what it voted for.
    The little quaint towns will become little cities. Filled with crime and drugs. There won’t be any tourists. Lol. Manchester to put a four story building in the middle of the shopping district. People from the city with money go there to get away from that. Small town people salivating on federal money. Selling thier souls to the devil. Good luck

  2. The need is skilled trade jobs, not more homes. Once Vermont legislators achieved the destruction of manufacturing industry in Vermont, the ability to afford a home was destroyed too. This is the government you voted for.

  3. This all seems well-meaning, but keep in mind the 15-minute city. This is the elite’s ultimate goal by 2030. I strongly believe geo-engineering took place re: Hurricane Irene @ decade ago. It’s been down-hill since re: weakening of small towns and furthering dependence on federal dollars with conditions.

  4. I agree with prioritizing the construction of multi family homes within city/town centers, adding accessory units and garage conversion. I don’t think continuing to construct McMansions on every rural cornfield is the way to go. We don’t need sprawl. Let’s keep rural and wild area’s mostly undeveloped. And re “15 minute cities”, I’ve lived in a place that would qualify and there was much about it that was excellent and I sincerely miss. It needed more open space/green space but otherwise was very convenient. Don’t knock it till you try it.

    • No one is advocating for out of the ordinary extravagant McMansions, but simply, like the article states, for traditional single family homes for working Vermonters.

      The idea of the 15 minute city seems great on the surface. But beware, …. friendly convenient places to live are probably not the only reasons these spaces are being created. Do you remember the old Twilight Zone episode ,”To Serve Man”? At the end, someone finally realized that the book, To Serve Man, was not for mankind’s benefit but was in fact a cook book and man was the main ingredient. But it was too late they were all being pushed on the plane to go to a “better world “a “better place to live”.

      I’m not getting on the plane! Nor will I ever live in a 15 minute city. It’s probably too good to be true.

      • So cities, even small ones, where you can walk to most places you regularly need, can really be good places to live. They also work well for children and teens who don’t have to be driven everywhere and for older or disabled people who can’t drive. I know that it’s hard to trust governments or environmentalists or whomever anymore and I share your distrust but I can honestly say that there are many good things in living in a place where everything isn’t so spread out and you have to drive everywhere.

  5. You are totally right to say that the Enviromental Commitees should get out of Vermont politics. They are certainly hypocrites to say only they should get to have a normal home. The Enviromental Protection Agency in this state has had to much influence in our government for to long, and I have every confidence that the people in this state could make decisions on how their towns should develop with good common sense and discussion within their own communities to the good of the people and our natural resources.

  6. Gather the peons into central clusters where they can be better controlled and won’t annoy the elites.

    15 minutes cities may be OK for some, but not for all, not by any stretch. I grew up a country boy, and have lived most of my life in rural areas. I have lived in small towns, small cities, and even large cities, and they all come under the category of good places to be from. The lemming life is NOT for me.

    If people stopped insisting on McMansions, it would do a lot to bring down SF housing costs tremendously. Plus as one person observed, we need to encourage more to seek trade schools educations, which is to say we need to move away from the mindset that everyone needs a college degree to get ahead. The reality is that many trade jobs are both well paying and in high demand. (I read recently that electricians in the Burlington Area are charging $100/hr, IF you can find one.

    • I couldn’t agree more with hisfool. Allow me to add two things.

      1) China builds lots of new cities, then leaves them empty until the CCP forces people to populate them. Sounds like what’s going on here, no?
      2) What will this do to housing and land values, aside from the pods to be built in inner cities? I’ll take a shot at the answer – Values down, gun ownership made more difficult, Pods built = devaluation of property = higher taxes = higher crime rate and drug use. With no way to defend yourself.

      And to whoever noted that this is the first step to rounding people up in a small area (ie, cities) where they’ll be easier to control was spot on too. They already censor anyone who disagrees with the left, and the high price of gas, the lowering of how far you can go by mandating EVs (restricting travel) are all in process and need to be stopped right now, before it’s too late.

  7. Builders want to build large houses as that’s where they make lots of money.

  8. These people in the legislature are Communists. Laugh as they may, that’s what socialism is.

    What they consider to be “equitable” housing where all the peons of Vermont can cohabitate in misery equally are hideous multi-unit housing structures once accurately referred to in the USA as tenements. You see them commonly on TV in places such as the former USSR & Ukraine. They are ugly and architecturally barren.

    The elite leaders alone shall occupy single family homes, for they are to be revered as gods under this system – and thus deserving of more appointment.

    Be prepared. It is coming. And it is coming fast. Be prepared for flight or fight. We prefer the latter.

    • I think that knee-jerk opposition to anything proposed by “the other side “ or anyone you disagree with is shortsighted. I sincerely doubt that there is going to be much of a future for the building of large single family homes on the large acreage required by most town zoning other than for the wealthy. There is the potential for much to be gained by infilling within urbanized areas. Do you really think that a mobile home in a trailer park is a better option than an affordable apartment in town? Because pretty much that’s all I see as the “affordable “ option in the future; mobile homes in parks or perhaps on a private lot. Land costs and the required septic and well are increasingly expensive. Building costs are through the roof. Just hating the left and calling them communists isn’t going to help solve the need for affordable housing in VT.

  9. I’d sooner live in a shack in the woods with an outhouse than some multi-family dogpile full of lefties, junkies, dealers and coming soon, prostitutes. Don’t Burlington Vermont!

    • @ a Lowry

      If you don’t want to live surrounded by leftists, druggies and prostitutes then don’t elect a government that encourages this. But I’m unclear why you assume that any sort of multi family living, anything short of your shack in the woods, has to by default be full of reprehensible people.

      • Well, if voting patterns are anything to go by, the whole state is increasingly full of reprehensible people. And I think you know that I didn’t vote for any of this. Some of us just don’t want to live near umpteen gajillion other people, and it’s one of the last remaining perks of living here. For now.

  10. The “American Dream” these days is having a home on it’s own piece of land that is not subject to any level of homeowners association with a neighbor. Even many towns now insist that a subdivision with 2 houses on a town road share the bottom of the driveway, in order to save on “culvert maintenance” costs. This forces the individual homeowners to be forever tied through a deed to each other for driveway maintenance standards. If one turns out to be a real asshat, or there is some simple disagreement about snow removal it creates a problem. Any multi-unit dwelling situation is going to have such issues. Government in general loves conflict like that as a distraction from their own malfeasance.
    Also, the moonbat-celebrated concept of “mixed use development” where they want retail space on the bottom floor with apartments above essentially puts those who live up there in charge of what kind of business activities can go on downstairs and the hours of operation. How would you like to be a 7-day-workweek, busting your butt business owner trying to successfully operate a restaurant and have the section 8 deadbeats living upstairs telling you they dont like you serving breakfast because it interferes with them sleeping until noon?

  11. The biggest problem in my township is non resident ownership period.
    It is over 50% and they pay a lower rate of property tax to boot increasing both cost of property and burden on residents.
    They bring nothing and I mean nothing to the town, but crime and bad behavior.


    • Non-residents pay full boat on property taxes, unless they are pulling some kind of fraud. If the property is not your primary residence, you get NO prebate/reduction.
      Dont worry, it’s only a matter of time before the legislature looks at the short term rental industry as a cash cow and hits them hard with taxes and regulations.