A Vermonter would need to earn more than $23 per hour to afford a typical two-bedroom rental, according to the latest report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. But renters in Vermont make on average about $14 per hour.
“Low-wage workers struggled in the pre-pandemic status quo and will continue to struggle unless serious investments are made in our housing safety net infrastructure,” the coalition said in its 2021 Out of Reach Report, released Wednesday.
“An affordable rental home is out of reach for millions of low-wage workers and other low-income families.”
Housing reform has been a top priority for state lawmakers for several years. This year, the Legislature passed a bill, S.79, created by a landlords’ group, affordable housing advocates, and others to address some of the problems behind the statewide housing shortage.
The bill would have helped the state gather information about the existing rental housing market by requiring short-term and long-term landlords to register with the state. It also would have levied a fee to pay for state housing inspectors, replacing the volunteer health officer positions used by many of the smaller towns.
Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the bill, saying it would place too large a burden on landlords who only had a few rental properties. Scott said the extra regulation associated with the measure would have discouraged some property owners from creating rental units.
The Scott administration instead points to a different solution: the $150 million of federal coronavirus relief money that Vermont received this year to build new homes and rehabilitate existing structures, including mobile homes. The Vermont Housing & Conservation Board is expected to award the money over the next two years through an array of programs.
“That’s definitely going to help. The problem is, that takes a while to deploy,” said Sarah Carpenter, chair of the Vermont Rental Housing Advisory Board, which created S.79. That group has focused more on existing housing stock than on creating of new housing.
Carpenter, who is the former head of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency and a member of the Burlington City Council, estimated that there are 4,000 vacant apartments statewide that aren't available to tenants, in some cases because they need repairs that the landlord can't afford. Those repairs could be paid for through a $5 million rental rehabilitation program contained in S.79, she said.
“We don’t know exactly what they all need, but there is stock that could be deployed more rapidly than building new,” said Carpenter. “It’s a great use of resources. It’s unfortunate that the governor chose to veto it even though he’s been supportive of that particular program.”
Vermont is just one of many states with a housing shortage. Nationally, a renter would need an hourly wage of $24.90 to afford a two-bedroom rental home, the report said.
The state's eviction moratorium, established in March 2020 as part of the emergency measures related to the pandemic, expires July 15. A federal moratorium expires July 31; according to Vermont Legal Aid, Vermont renters are not automatically protected from eviction by the federal rule.
Many Vermont towns have had housing committees in place for years, and several of them are now performing comprehensive studies to see how much housing they have and find ways to increase their stock.
One is the Connecticut River Valley town of Norwich. The head of the town's housing committee, Jeff Lubell, said renters on the New Hampshire side of the river are facing similar problems.
“I can tell you that housing is at a crisis point in most of the United States,” said Lubell, a housing policy analyst for the global consulting firm Abt Associates. “The problem has been getting substantially worse over the last 20 years.”