By Sen. Alison Clarkson
Many of us are feeling relief that omicron’s surge has taken a steep nose dive. The possibility of a return to something more like normal looks promising. It’s great to be able to feel more comfortable and a bit safer than we did a month ago. However, for a significant number of people and businesses in our communities, the disruption of the last two years has been rough. Despite $3.56 billion flowing into Vermont to support individuals, families, businesses, state and municipal functionality — recovery for many continues to be slow.
Covid’s waves of delta and omicron reinforced our reluctance to socialize and has devastated our hospitality, special event and creative sectors and our congregant centers of community life. Our senior centers, childcare centers, fitness and yoga studios, gyms, churches and synagogues — in addition to our restaurants, theaters, museums, art galleries, lodging establishments and special events businesses (florists, tent companies, photographers, caterers), have all struggled trying to recover. Many businesses in other sectors have rebounded and are doing very well, which is wonderful.
In addition, the Covid refugees from urban areas, our need to house the homeless during Covid, and the removal of rental units for use as short term rentals, have put pressure on our already tight housing market. Our vacancy rate in many areas is below 1%, making it almost impossible to find housing — equally challenging for those who’ve been offered a job here, those who need to move, or those who’ve been evicted.
And, we still have people in the workforce having to miss work for Covid related reasons — not unemployed people — but people whose childcare has shut down, or their kids have had to stay home, or a family member got ill, or they got ill. Wages continue to be lost because of Covid. This experience of wage loss as a result of Covid starkly illustrates the need for a paid family medical leave program. We are exploring how to move forward with this invaluable safety net so many other states have established.
To address these ongoing needs: economic recovery, housing and wage replacement, the Senate Economic Development Committee is working on two omnibus bills, which we hope will help. We expect to finish the work on them in the next two weeks.
The first, an Economic Development bill, includes a range of measures designed to support the continued recovery of our hardest hit business sectors. We anticipate that direct financial support will be made available through a new forgivable loan program administered by the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) which will provide the kind of individual attention many of these businesses need. Emerging out of Covid there is an energy we want to harness, as witnessed in the over-subscribed Capital Investment Program, which invests in projects with regional impact. We plan on investing more in cleaning up our brownfields, those contaminated sites, which, if mitigated will enable new development. We expect to build on our Relocating Worker incentives, and to extend our Tax Increment Finance (TIF) program and offer a simpler, mini-scale TIF for smaller towns, to increase our very successful Downtown Tax Credit Program and to support our Creative Economy, so important to the vibrancy of our communities.
Our Housing initiatives are in two bills, the first of which is now in the House for consideration. That bill, S.210, includes significant steps forward to improve the health and safety of our rental housing in Vermont. It invests significantly more in the very successful Vermont Rental Housing Incentive Program (VHIP), which offers landlords the opportunity to renovate vacant, blighted, and non-code compliant housing stock with a matching grant program. It brings new housing units back on-line faster and for a fraction of the cost of a new unit.
The primary focus of our second bill (the Omnibus Housing bill) is incenting housing projects, which increase density in our downtowns and village centers and expanding access to safe and affordable housing. It includes: enhanced opportunities and support for Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s), reduces barriers for towns to add Neighborhood Development Areas (NDA’s), streamlines the permitting process, creates a first generation home ownership program, supports the conversion of some commercial properties for residential use, extends our By-Law Modernization program, creates a Large Employer Housing Partnership program designed to encourage partnerships, which would result in building more workforce housing, and proposes a Manufactured Home grant program to improve mobile home parks, remove abandoned mobile homes and repair and renovate existing ones.
Senator Alison Clarkson can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-457-4627.