Housing advocates in Vermont are celebrating a number of victories coming out of the state’s legislative session, which concluded on May 6. “Affordable housing has been under attack in many ways from the executive branch for the past eight years,” said Erhard Mahnke, Coordinator of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition (VAHC), an NLIHC state coalition partner. “This session marked a change. We are fortunate to have a new governor, who has shown his commitment to affordable housing and homeless services, in addition to a legislature that has been supportive all along.”
Governor Peter Shumlin (D), previously the President Pro Tempore of Vermont’s Senate, ran on a platform emphasizing the state’s need for housing and homeless services. Even before his inauguration, advocates met with him and urged him to propose pro-housing policies. Governor Shumlin attended Vermont Coalition to End Homelessness’ advocacy day prior to his inauguration, and committed to work toward increasing funding for homeless services and homelessness prevention. He supported advocates’ request to increase funding for homeless programs by proposing an additional $500,000 for homeless services, which the legislature approved in its annual budget adjustment act.
Additionally, VAHC urged the governor to replace $1.7 million in federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) funding with state funds, and Governor Shumlin introduced a proposal to fill this shortfall. Throughout the legislative session, advocates successfully lobbied their members of the Vermont House and Senate to support the governor’s proposal. The legislature voted to increase the state’s general assistance budget by $1.7 million, a 40% increase, to fund homeless prevention services. They also level funded state assistance to homeless shelters.
Advocates were also successful in winning the legislature’s support of the Governor’s proposal to adequately fund the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB). The VHCB administers state funding for affordable housing development, as well as land conservation and historic preservation. Under a statutory formula, VHCB is supposed to receive a 50 percent share of the revenue generated by the state’s real estate transfer tax. Over the past 10 years, the VHCB has lost $35 million in revenue because the state has diverted real estate transfer taxes to other state General Fund priorities, including deficit reduction. This year, however, the Governor proposed full funding for VHCB, and the legislature voted to provide funding at almost the full levels dictated by the formula.
During the session, VAHC also introduced a state housing preservation bill, modeled on similar laws in Illinois and Rhode Island. The bill would give residents in properties with expiring federal subsidies a first right to purchase and preserve affordability. The bill was not passed, but a housing preservation council will work on it throughout the summer, and advocates hope the legislature will take it up again next year.
Advocates say winning funding for housing and homeless services is especially significant given the state’s substantial deficit, its fourth consecutive deficit year. “Our annual legislative day in February was really effective,” said Mahnke. “Vermont is a small state, and people really know their legislators. Advocates work to build relationships, and legislators respond to it.” Building on the momentum coming out of the legislative session, Governor Shumlin is convening a summit on “Housing the Homeless” on June 7. The summit aims to “bring fresh ideas, energy, and solutions to the fight against homelessness,” according to a statement from the Governor’s office. “We have a lot of victories to celebrate, and we’re energized to keep working so we accomplish even more next year,” said Mahnke.