Commentary, Opinion

Homelessness is a crisis of housing, not unhousable Vermonters

By Anne Sosin

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Anne N. Sosin, a policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences at Dartmouth College. 

A recent Vermont Public story profiled a home health worker who, after nearly 30 years of steady service, now earns $18 per hour. That is $5.40 per hour short of the estimated $23.40 she needs to earn to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment in most parts of the state.

This worker is on the frontlines of health care for many Vermonters. She is also one of many faces of the state’s growing crisis of housing and homelessness.

As this crisis reaches further into the middle class, it leaves low-income workers and people whose needs cannot be met with conventional housing in an uphill battle to stay housed. It is turning middle-class Vermonters into working-class Vermonters and working-class Vermonters into unhoused or doubled-up Vermonters.

It is forcing many people to turn down jobs in the state and others to leave the state entirely. It affects the ability of businesses, health care institutions, schools and others to recruit and retain workers, threatening the stability of services essential to all Vermonters.

Amid this unprecedented and growing emergency, Vermont is drawing down many of the supports that kept Vermonters experiencing homelessness sheltered. These programs kept many others in their homes, including many low-income Vermonters in the workforce.

The abrupt and impending end of emergency rental assistance, transitional motel housing, and other supports threatens to toss scores of Vermonters into homelessness and untenable housing situations during our coldest months.

Ending housing support in absence of adequate housing supply or a plan to develop it will make Vermont’s most vulnerable residents pay the price for our longstanding policy failure to develop sufficient affordable housing.

Vermont’s housing shortage is a crisis of affordable housing, not of unhousable Vermonters. University of Washington housing researcher Gregg Colburn and data journalist Clayton Aldern found that housing supply and affordability — not drug use, mental illness, climate, poverty, local political context, availability of services — best accounts for regional variation in homelessness. Homelessness, they echo other scholars and policy experts in their new book, is a housing problem.

Vermont does not have enough housing to meet the needs of its current population.

The state currently has the lowest rental vacancy rate in the U.S. at 2.5% and in Chittenden County it is a meager 0.4%.

The 2020-2025 Housing Needs Assessment highlighted large shortages of affordable housing across this state, especially for low-income families. In the Upper Valley region alone, the Keys to the Valley study estimated that the region would need 10,000 units by 2030.

Adequate housing is particularly short for disabled Vermonters, aging Vermonters, and those requiring permanent supportive housing. In addition, an estimated 18,000 primary homes are of substandard quality.

Housing is increasingly unaffordable as well: Vermont ranks in the upper half of rental wages in the country and has the ninth-highest rental wage for rural states. With a state rental wage of $23.40 — almost double the minimum wage of $13.18 as of Jan. 1, 2023 — Vermonters working minimum-wage jobs need to work 59 hours per week or 1.5 jobs to afford a two-bedroom at fair market rate.

Vermonters seeking a modest two-bedroom apartment — a group that includes families with children — must work 75 hours or 1.9 minimum-wage jobs.

Homes are also increasingly out of reach — the Zillow Home Index climbed from $265,000 to $374,000, a more than 40% increase since the onset of the pandemic.

This is a solvable crisis: Extensive evidence as well as the experience of other locations tell us that the vast majority of people can be successfully housed — when there is housing available.

Several randomized control trials provide robust evidence that even chronically unhoused people — including those with significant health care use, severe mental illness, and encounters with the criminal justice system — can be housed using a Housing First model, an approach that combines housing with supportive services.

Policymakers that have acted on this evidence have made dramatic progress in reducing homelessness. Milwaukee has reduced its unsheltered homeless population by 92% since 2015 and was recognized in June 2022 as having the lowest per-capita unsheltered homeless population in the U.S. despite overall increases in homelessness in the state of Wisconsin.

Houston has rehoused 25,000 people in the last decade, cutting homelessness by more than half and outperforming much of the country.

In Rockford, Illinois, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated efforts underway to eliminate unsheltered homelessness.

The Veterans Administration has reduced homelessness by 11% since January 2020 and 55% since 2010 using a Housing First model.

It’s time for Vermont to stop debating solutions that are inconsistent with the evidence and set the state further back from other parts of the country. Gov. Scott and the Vermont Legislature must offer a plan and leadership commensurate with the scale of the challenge. We need to focus on housing first.

Motel housing and short-term programs are not the long-term solution to Vermont’s critical shortage of stable housing and supportive housing. Housing is. But the next step is to provide a bridge to permanent housing rather than a cliff to homelessness.

Vermont policymakers need to pair emergency solutions for those most at risk with an aggressive, comprehensive, evidence-based plan backed by adequate resources to expand our supply of housing and to end homelessness.

This plan should address not only the need for physical infrastructure but also for wraparound services for Housing First approaches. As part of its plan, the Legislature and leaders from other sectors must set aside the business-as-usual mentality and address the varied policy, regulatory, structural and political barriers to developing affordable housing at scale.

This includes both allocating significant additional resources for affordable housing construction and undertaking difficult but overdue reforms.

We know that Housing First works. We need political leadership to invest first in housing to address Vermont’s crisis of housing and homelessness.

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