On March 8, 2023

House, Senate negotiators strike emergency housing deal, restricting eligibility after May 31, program expires June 30

By Lola Duffort/VTDigger

Vermont House and Senate budget writers have hammered out a deal to extend emergency housing in motels for people experiencing homelessness through June 30 — but not for all. 

After May 31, only people fleeing domestic violence, families with children, those aged 60 and over, pregnant people, people with disabilities, and certain households that recently lost their housing would remain eligible.

Discussions about what to do in the short term about Vermont’s emergency housing program in hotels have been underway as part of the Legislature’s annual budget adjustment bill, or H.145, a spending plan passed early during each session to true-up the current fiscal year’s budget.

A House-passed version of the budget adjustment bill had set aside $21 million to keep everyone eligible for housing in motels through June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. The Senate-passed version also anticipated continuing the program until that date — but with new eligibility requirements kicking in a month prior.

There are roughly 1,800 households living in motels right now. Under the Senate’s construct, the Department for Children and Families estimates that 1,045 households currently in the program will remain eligible after May 31, a spokesperson said Tuesday.

As it stands, federal funding for the emergency housing programs — which Vermont had dramatically scaled up in the Covid-19 pandemic-era thanks to Congressional aid packages — is projected to run dry March 31. Gov. Phil Scott’s administration has argued forcefully that the expanded emergency housing program, absent federal dollars, is unsustainable and must be wound down. 

But administration officials have suggested that they could live with extending the program through the end of the current fiscal year if eligibility were further restricted. And they’ve also argued that with participating motels already at capacity, many are on the streets anyway, and the first-come, first-served model in place doesn’t allow the state to prioritize those who need help the most.

The Senate’s eligibility criteria are slightly more lax than those pitched by the administration. But Senate Appropriations chair Jane Kitchel, D-Danville, has repeatedly leaned on their argument that eligibility needs to be restricted in order to direct the few rooms available to those with the highest need.

And in a meeting between House and Senate conferees last Monday, Feb. 27, Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes (Kitchel’s House counterpart), suggested this argument had now swayed her as well. “Families and others are being turned away because of lack of space right now,” she said. “And it’s making me think about how to approach this subject now in a different way.”

On basically every other item in contention, the Senate also got its way. The House wanted to give the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board $50 million for affordable housing development, but ultimately agreed to the Senate’s offer of $27.5 million, $2.5 million of which would go to expanding emergency shelter capacity. 

The Senate had also proposed spending $9 million on a “missing middle” homeownership program favored by the Scott administration which the House hadn’t included in its version of the bill. House conferees agreed to include it, although they stressed that they would be subtracting it from any requests considered as part of the regular budget process.

The conferees’ deal must now go before each chamber for a final up-or-down vote before heading to the governor’s desk. 

Scott’s press secretary Jason Maulucci, wrote in an email that while the governor would have liked additional reductions in spending, he was pleased that House and Senate negotiators had settled for a cheaper bill than the one originally passed by the House — and funded the vast majority of the governor’s proposals.

“Our team will analyze the final bill over the next several hours,” he said.

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