Local leaders told state senators Tuesday that money would help fix a lot of Rutland’s housing issues.
Members of the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee came to Rutland on Tuesday for a roundtable discussion on housing issues. Held at Rutland Free Library, the discussion involved local officials and the directors of several nonprofits involved in housing in various capacities. Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden County, the committee chairman, said they previously held a similar meeting in White River Junction and plan to visit St. Albans next month, Windham County in December and Chittenden County in January.
“Everybody hears about the housing needs in this state,” Sirotkin said. “We hear in each region they are different.”
Rutland’s needs were just subject to a report — an update to the 2012 housing-needs study that served as the basis for the Northwest Neighborhood revitalization project — that found the region has an excess of housing, but rental properties in particular tend to be of lower quality and hard to afford. Ed Bove, executive director of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, said while Rutland’s housing prices are lower than in much of the state, so is median income, and the housing stock tends to be older as well.
“Does everybody agree the need here is better, not more?” Sirotkin asked. “Is the way to accomplish that to tear down and replace or renovate, or is there room for more?”
Elisabeth Kulas, executive director of the Rutland County Housing Trust, said that many of the towns with the oldest housing stock are the county’s “core historic villages” and that the older housing stock is often considered historic.
“The buildings are larger,” she said. “They have a lot of historic characteristics that made them part of the value of our communities.”
Kulas said the question of renovating versus demolishing needs to take into account the building and the neighborhood. Also, she said the older buildings are often too large for modern single-family ownership. Sirotkin asked if there were any state regulations that got in the the way of converting them to apartments.
“A lot of it is economic rather than regulatory,” Kulas replied.
Private developers cannot recover the costs of converting such homes the way they could in a stronger economy, Kulas said. Ludy Biddle, executive director of NeighborWorks, said that a number of the houses her organization renovated as part of the the Northwest Neighborhood project needed repairs that came to more than the houses could sell for. She said there was value in keeping many of the older buildings intact.
“It’s a preservation project by neglect, but it’s a preservation project that should be maintained for the future,” she said. “When people travel through Vermont, they want to see the historic villages, they want to see the farm houses, they want to see how our country was developed.”
Several different people at the meeting spoke on the value of subsidies to spur private investment.
Sirotkin discussed how the committee tried unsuccessfully last year to push another housing bond similar to the one Gov. Phil Scott approved in 2017, and that they intended to try again next year, though Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin County, sounded a dissenting note. Brock expressed concern about the debt being taken on by the state, especially after Vermont’s bond rating was recently downgraded. The committee has also asked the state treasurer’s office to look at alternate revenue sources to improve housing.
Brennan Duffy, executive director of the Rutland Redevelopment Authority, asked that the money from a second bond be spread more evenly around the state than the money from the first has been, and to let individual areas use it in a manner that best suits their needs.