Column

Lawmakers propose taking $20 million from child care to buy manufactured homes and provide services to unhoused Vermonters

By Lola Duffort/VTDigger

A last-minute amendment tacked on to the Vermont House’s $8.5 billion state budget bill, H.494, would reallocate $20 million set aside for child care to house and provide services for certain unhoused Vermonters now living in hotels.

A pandemic-era program housing about 2,800 people experiencing homelessness in hotels ran out of federal funding March 31, and advocates have been working furiously all session to convince lawmakers to use state funds to prevent thousands from losing their shelter. They were partially successful: A mid-year spending package that passed into law earlier this month partially extends funding through June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.

But the advocates’ larger ask — for $72 million to keep the program going through next year, as well as $40 million to expand shelter capacity — has largely fallen on deaf ears. 

In his budget proposal, Gov. Phil Scott had recommended spending $26 million on the motel program, enough to provide vouchers in the winter months, but not year-round. And until last Wednesday, House Democrats had made clear they were not interested in substantially improving on Scott’s opening offer. A draft of the state budget that the chamber’s appropriations committee had largely buttoned up on Friday included the same figure for motel housing, plus $3.75 million to expand shelter capacity and $2 million for housing support grants.

But by an 8-3 straw vote, with all Republicans present in opposition, the budget-writing panel on Wednesday morning blessed a new amendment, which would add an extra $20 million to that total. Half would go to supportive services, the other $10 million would go to manufactured housing, commonly known as mobile homes, for people in motels who meet new eligibility criteria.

House Human Services Committee chair Rep. Theresa Wood, D-Waterbury, who crafted the amendment, told the appropriations panel that there are over 300 vacancies in manufactured home parks right now. At $40,000 a piece, she said, $10 million could buy an estimated 250 manufactured homes. 

That’s enough to re-house just a fraction of those currently living in motels — a fact Wood herself appeared to acknowledge.

“This is not going to solve the entire housing crisis that we’re in,” Wood said. “I want to make that perfectly clear to members around this table and to the people watching today. But I felt really like we had to consider something else.”

A majority of Vermonters in a recent poll said they wanted to see the motel program extended, and there are no viable alternatives ready to shelter those who will exit this summer. But the program is deeply unpopular with the administration and lawmakers, who see it as a massively expensive stop-gap that does little to address root causes of homelessness.

A section heading in the amendment is titled “Plan to end hotel and motel program established during the Covid-19 emergency,” and Wood stressed to her colleagues Wednesday that this was “important.”

“This is the first time I believe that you will see anything in writing that says ‘end the Covid-era motel-hotel program,’” she told the appropriations panel.

Still, for advocates, the new money represents progress.

“We are encouraged to see a commitment of funding to create a bridge to housing for Vermonters experiencing homelessness,” Anne Sosin, the interim director of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, said in a statement. “However, much work still needs to be done to avoid a crisis of more than 2,000 of the most vulnerable Vermonters becoming unsheltered.” 

She added that the group looked forward to “collaborating on a plan that reflects the best evidence and lessons from other states in coming weeks.”

The new, one-time $20 million appropriation for unhoused Vermonters will come out of a $92 million line item that was initially set aside in the budget for child care. It’s unclear how much that will impact policy conversations around early childhood education — the figure was meant to be a placeholder, since the two chambers are still a long way away from negotiating a final package and price tag. 

Though the Democrats’ approach to the motel-hotel program had, until now, largely mirrored the administration’s, Scott has made clear that he is strongly opposed to the larger budget bill, which includes broad expansions to social spending that would require new taxes. On Wednesday, his press secretary, Jason Maulucci, said that the governor was opposed to this latest amendment as well.

“From an administrative standpoint, we would need to analyze what of these funds we could get out the door and whether (the Department for Children and Families) would have the staffing capacity to manage it,” Maulucci wrote in an email. “Limiting additional supports of this broad nature to this population could also slow down the flow of funds to individuals experiencing homelessness.”

The budget is expected to hit the House floor Thursday.

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