Vermont’s Housing Crisis Demands Structural Reforms Now

Commentary by Mayor Miro Weinberger, Burlington  

By every measure, we are in the midst of a historic and acute housing crisis.   

Statewide, the median home price has jumped to $310,000 in 2022, up more than 35% since 2019. In Chittenden County, the vacancy rate has hit a 20-year low of 0.4% and more than half of all renters pay more than one-third of their income on housing. Last summer our rental vacancy rate ranked 49th in the country at 2.4%, we had the second-highest homelessness rate in the country, and we had approximately 70 people sleeping outside unsheltered in Burlington every night.  

The central cause of these trends is clear: after decades of declining production, we don’t have nearly enough homes in Vermont. It’s also clear what we need to increase this supply: structural reform of problematic state and local land use rules that have made it much too hard to build, even in the communities where there is broad consensus growth is needed.   

Succeeding at this critical effort will require a great deal of collaboration between different levels of government. Unfortunately, local and state officials are currently clashing over the housing omnibus bill S.100 because, last week, a senate committee removed most of the modest Act 250 reforms previously included in the bill. This dispute has jeopardized the accomplishment of any meaningful housing reform this legislative session.   

The clock is ticking, but there is still time to expand S.100’s impact and support by focusing on a straightforward solution that would remove one of the largest current barriers to new housing: duplicative state and local permit review.   

In Vermont, we have a unique and problematic practice of requiring many critical development projects to go through both a comprehensive local zoning review and a redundant, costly, and time-consuming state Act 250 review. This duplicative review could be eliminated by “municipal delegation,” a concept that has been detailed in a technical proposal drafted by planners in Burlington, South Burlington, and Winooski.   

Before we dig into it, let’s first review what S.100 is trying to accomplish and where things fell apart.   

The bill, as drafted, would have directed municipalities to remove some common housing barriers from local zoning codes, like parking minimums and codes that effectively prohibit housing types such as duplexes and triplexes. At the same time, it worked to alleviate some of the housing barriers in state law, such as by increasing the thresholds for when a project triggers Act 250.  

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT), along with many businesses and some municipal leaders, now oppose S.100 because of the removal of these modest Act 250 reforms, which turns the omnibus bill into a proposal dominated by local mandates. Regardless of the remaining merits, municipal leaders are rightly frustrated by legislation that directs cities and towns to undergo the difficult work of changing local zoning without a commensurate effort to address problematic statewide land use rules.  

This approach is more than just politically untenable – it is counterproductive.   

In Burlington, we have worked for the last decade to eliminate housing barriers in our zoning and ordinances. It is now the state rules and regulations that, in many cases, are the biggest obstacles standing in the way of new housing. At the very least, the legislature should restore S.100 to the version first introduced by the Senate Economic Development committee in the early days of this session, which VLCT had called “a grand bargain”.  

It would be far better to go further and add new authority for municipal delegation of development review to municipalities with local laws that are functionally equivalent to existing Act 250 criteria.   

There is already municipal delegation in other state laws, such as for lakeshore protection standards and stormwater regulations. There is also precedent within Act 250 itself -- for years, there has been an exemption for a narrowly defined group of projects within state-designated areas.  

A Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development study from 2017 found that those exemptions “saved an average of $50,000 in permit fees per project, and reduced permit timelines an estimated average of seven months”. Moreover, this study didn’t even count the biggest savings – projects that only need to go through one level of review can save more than a hundred thousand dollars of professional time and legal costs as well.  

Municipal delegation can help us build more homes much faster without compromising environmental standards that have served us well because it does not change the substance of Act 250—it would simply enable municipalities to help advance those important statewide goals in a more effective way.     

Amending S.100 to include municipal delegation could serve as a great example of state policy that simultaneously strengthens our urban and rural communities, answers the needs of both environmental and affordable housing advocates, and calls on state and local governments to work together -- instead of pitting these interests against each other.  

Vermont's housing crisis demands this type of all-hands-on-deck response and structural reform. 

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