Advocates for affordable housing believe a huge infusion of federal money to the states will allow Vermont to achieve a long-elusive goal of making sure more people have permanent and secure homes.
Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, wants to spend roughly a quarter billion dollars from his state’s share of the American Rescue Plan funds on housing initiatives.
“The moment’s now,” said Josh Hanford, Vermont’s housing commissioner.
The Scott administration’s proposed $249-million investment in housing includes work on expanding shelter capacity and speeding up affordable and mixed-income developments.
While the package still needs a closer look from the Vermont Legislature, Hanford said there are projects that have been in the works for years which have been awaiting funding.
Thanks to the federal money from the American Rescue Plan, Hanford said he believes it’s now possible to deliver 5,000 new housing units across the state by the end of 2024.
“We’re more prepared than ever because this pandemic has everyone collaborating, working together, and ready to break down barriers like we’ve never done before,” Hanford told NECN.
Friends Tina Gray Rand and Tammy Menard are two faces of the housing crisis in Vermont.
“We need affordable housing,” Menard emphasized, explaining she had nowhere to go after leaving an abusive relationship.
Gray Rand said she had to give up a job to care for a relative, then, had no work to go back to.
“I don’t have transportation, so I have been looking for employment that will enable me to walk to work,” Gray Rand said.
Both women are currently housed in a motel in Barre, and said they have been doing peer support work and advocacy for people temporarily housed in hotels and motels.
Right now, state figures show approximately 2,000 Vermont households are living in hotels or motels. That could mean 2,500-2,700 individuals, Hanford estimated, but he noted the figure is hard to pin down, since it fluctuates daily.
Hotels and motels became part of Vermont’s coronavirus prevention strategy last year when the state wanted folks out of cramped shelters or situations where they were doubled up on someone’s floor—locations where disease could spread more easily in close quarters.
FEMA is reimbursing the state for those hotel stays, at least for now.
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“We must meet the basic needs of people living here,” said Rev. Beth Ann Maier, a deacon in two Episcopal churches in Montpelier and Barre who is also a longtime activist with Vermont Interfaith Action.
Vermont Interfaith Action is urging policymakers to invest big in housing stock, so people put up in hotels during the pandemic will have places to go for long-term security.
Maier said she was pleased to see Gov. Scott propose spending such a significant portion of the federal money on housing.
“If we take people out of homelessness and support them in permanent housing, their costs in terms of health care, mental health care, criminal justice, education—all those costs are cut in half,” Maier said.
Maier said the problems of housing insecurity and unhoused Vermonters existed well before the pandemic.
Menard and Gray Rand said they are grateful for the high-level focus on housing, and are optimistic they’ll each be able to get into a permanent and secure home, for fresh starts.
“This pandemic has given us the opportunity to create something different going forward in the future that maybe works better for society,” Gray Rand said. “I think it’s forcing us to address the issues that we were ignoring for so long.”