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