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By: Mia Watson on 2/12/2020

VHFA Executive Director Maura Collins was recently interviewed by Anne Wallace Allen of VTDigger.  The interview discussed why housing continues to be a major challenge for Vermont, and how the state and local communities can help make housing more affordable.

Excerpts from the interview are reprinted below:

VTDigger: Why is housing such a problem in so many areas? Is it worse in Vermont?

Maura Collins: We do have our challenges. One fundamental structural problem we have in the U.S. to finding affordable housing that you’d want to live in is that we have decided that as a nation we are not going to create modest low-priced housing to own, only to rent. There is no federal program to build affordable homeownership. There are pockets of this same supply constraint happening all across the country, especially in the more urban areas.

When I go to national conferences, the decimation happening in rural America is very scary and sad. While I see problems with divestment in some of our rural communities, I don’t see it to the same extent. I can be optimistic that with investment, the little village centers, the country store, the post office, if we can hold on to some of those cherished landmarks, and ensure some kind of support for them, it gives them a fighting chance.

VTDigger: Why doesn’t the market take care of the housing problem?​

Maura Collins:  The math doesn’t work. Building housing is too expensive. Back in the 1950s and 1960s we built these modern, cheaper homes. But our expectations of what we want in a home has changed, and maybe some of us are not as willing to live in a 1,100-square-foot home. That could be one thing. 

Municipalities used to provide roads, curbs, sidewalks, wastewater, everything you need to entice the developers to come build homes in their community. That made the housing less expensive, so the sale price was lower. That doesn’t happen anymore; municipalities are more strapped financially.

Also, income inequality has grown, and therefore people can’t afford as much as they used to. Their own finances are stretched further paying for higher education, child care, transportation, health care. There is less money to spend on housing if they want to.

And we’re not using our land as efficiently as we could. Land is more expensive, and in the public process about development, something that happens more now is more neighbors look at developments and say, “I don’t want more density near me, I don’t want more homes.” We also have much higher expectations for parking requirements.

Also, construction costs are going up; labor is more expensive; materials are more expensive.

VTDigger: What can the state do?​

Maura Collins:  ​Land use is definitely No. 1. There is Act 250 compromise legislation out now that takes a lot of great steps. But it’s not just land use at the state level. A lot of local regulation and zoning impacts what we actually see happening.

There is a perception that change is bad, and growth is suspect. I see it in my community. As our town grows, residents are struggling with being thoughtful about that growth, and wanting to make sure the community we have today is not lost as changes are made and development happens. There’s a feeling that everything should go very slowly, so there’s a hesitation to throw the barn doors open and make sweeping land use changes when we don’t know how that is going to play out.

People who don’t want us to use cars really want density, they want everything to be downtown and walkable and close. We waste so much of our land on parking, and surface parking is not great for the environment. The Legislature is looking at how to force communities to reduce parking requirements if they haven’t done it already at the local level.

VTDigger: If you could change one thing to make more housing available, what would it be?

Maura Collins:  ​I would have every community in the state have a housing commission. We need a local response looking at this. It’s frustrating to me that most towns in our state have a fence surveyor and a cemetery commission and we’re planning more for the people who have deceased than the ones who would like to join our community while they are alive.

We are seeing people moving into more urban areas. That may mean there are shrinking towns that need to have a housing commission so their existing housing stock doesn’t fall into such disrepair that their community vibrancy dies along with the structures. We need to know if we’re offering rental housing in our communities or not, and what the needs are of the people living in that community, and the needs of the people who want to live in the community and can’t access it.

People are frustrated that the state is not more affordable, and yet when there are steps proposed to make housing more affordable, there is a natural resistance to that change.

When communities try to support housing that is more dense, maybe bigger buildings, people start getting very nervous about that growth. Another disconnect: People ask, “If the population isn’t growing, why would we need more housing?”

Our population doesn’t have to change in order for us to need more homes. Every year our household size is getting smaller. That puts pressure on our housing stock.

VTDigger: What will happen with housing this legislative session?​

Maura Collins:  ​I see more agreement than disagreement, though the disagreements end up in the news more.

In general, I genuinely see the administration, the Legislature, the affordable housing advocates, and the municipalities, on the same page about the problems and in many regards what should be done.

I’m really excited that housing is one of the top five or 10 issues being discussed this year.

Visit VTDigger to read the full article. 

Photo courtesy of Twin Pines Housing

By: Mia Watson on 2/11/2020

Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) is seeking feedback and comments on the Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP) that guides the agency in making housing tax credit allocation decisions. The Agency has opened the initial comment period and will close the period on Friday, April 15, 2020. The current 2020-2021 QAP is available on VHFA’s website.

The Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) Program, which is governed by Section 42 of the Internal Revenue Code, requires that each tax credit allocating agency maintain a Qualified Allocation Plan (QAP) that sets eligibility and criteria for awarding state and federal tax credits to developers of affordable housing. The QAP is a compilation of IRS mandates, national best practices and state housing priorities.

In Vermont, VHFA convenes the Joint Committee on Tax Credits, which solicits public feedback, reviews the policies in the QAP and makes recommendations to the VHFA Board of Commissioners. The Board votes to adopt the plan before being sent to the Governor for approval. VHFA’s goal is to update the QAP as needed with sufficient notice that developers are able to respond accordingly and bring projects that reflect the criteria of the QAP, with a target of two years between substantial updates.

To arrive at recommendations for updates to criteria and policies in the QAP, VHFA staff facilitate public comment prior to presenting a recommended QAP. Following a review of comments, VHFA will be organizing a number of public outreach meetings around various QAP-related topics between April and July of 2020. A draft 2022-2023 QAP is expected to be available for public comment in the fall of 2020, and VHFA staff expect to make recommendations on QAP updates to the Joint Committee on Tax Credits before the end of 2020. By having the QAP approved a year in advance of 2022 applications, potential applicants will have time to consider any substantial updates in planning 2022 projects.

Comments on the QAP can be submitted via VHFA’s website. To learn more about this process, contact VHFA’s Community Development Department at developmentdept@vhfa.org or by mail at 164 Saint Paul Street, Burlington VT, 05402.

Pictured: Monument View in Bennington. The project received federal tax credits allocated by VHFA.

By: Leslie Black-Plumeau on 1/24/2020

Caroline Rubin, a graduate student at University of Vermont, has been named the inaugural Vermont Housing Fellow by VHFA.  Rubin will receive a financial stipend to improve and expand information available to decision makers about Vermont housing markets and opportunities. In the process, she will gain valuable experience aiding her professional development.

“Creating this fellowship is an example of VHFA living its mission of promoting and financing affordable housing,” said VHFA Executive Director Maura Collins. “We want to invest housing resources where they are most needed and Caroline’s background positions her to make significant contributions to VHFA’s research and community development efforts. She will have the opportunity to relate knowledge gained in the classroom to practical, real-world settings.” 

Originally from Marblehead, Massachusetts, Rubin has a Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Vermont and is currently completing the final semester of graduate work required for a Master of Public Administration degree.

The goal of the Vermont Housing Fellow program is to cultivate interest among graduate students nationwide in Vermont-based affordable housing careers with a specific goal of growing the diversity of experiences and perspectives used when thinking about the housing needs in Vermont.

VHFA’s Housing Fellow program provides students in Vermont and beyond its borders with the opportunity to relate knowledge gained in the classroom to practical, real-world settings.  This program is a new, permanent fellowship offered by VHFA, and the Agency plans to appoint a new student to the fellowship each semester for the coming years. Candidates of color, those from outside Vermont, and historically underserved populations who are interested in affordable housing in a rural state like Vermont are encouraged to apply.

Please contact VHFA’s Human Resources Director Steve Gronlund (sgronlund@vhfa.org) for more information. Candidates must be graduate students enrolled at an accredited program. Internship course credits may be available through his or her university or through University of Vermont’s Public Administration program. For information about University of Vermont credits, please contact Julie Starr at jstarr2@uvm.edu.  

By: Mia Watson on 1/21/2020

Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) has released its 2019 Annual Report. This year VHFA celebrated its 45th annniversary of financing and promoting affordable housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income Vermonters. Since it opened, the Agency has helped approximately 29,000 Vermont households with affordable mortgages and financed the development of approximately 8,800 affordable rental apartments. 

In fiscal year 2019, VHFA financed $80 million in home mortgages to help 481 households move into their own homes. 87 percent of VHFA borrowers were first-time homebuyers, and 68 percent received down payment assistance. VHFA also received an award this year for pioneering the use of state tax credits for down payment assistance at a national housing conference.

VHFA was again the single largest source of funding for affordable rental housing development in the state. Of the new rental housing that VHFA funded in FY19, the federal and state tax credits and loans awarded by the Agency supported an average of 72 percent of total project costs. VHFA awarded $33 million in tax credits and $18 million in loans to projects that created or rehabilitated 477 apartments across the state. 7,987 Vermonters currently live in apartments funded by the Agency, and VHFA staff physically inspected over 450 apartments this past year to monitor program compliance, property maintenance, and safety and affordability for residents. 

Despite these successes, there is still much work to be done. 25 percent of Vermont renters pay over half their income in rent, making it difficult to afford other basic expenses like food and transportation. A Vermont worker would need to earn $18.18 per hour to afford an average one bedroom apartment, yet the average renter earns just $13.40 per hour. Prospective homebuyers are also struggling to afford Vermont's high home prices. 60 percent of recent Vermont graduates have student loans, with an average $29,656 in debt, making it hard to save up to purchase their first homes without help. VHFA will continue to work towards a safe, decent, and affordable home for all Vermonters. 

Read the full 2019 Annual Report to learn more about VHFA's work this past year.

By: Mia Watson on 1/17/2020

Strong financial performance contributed to a rating upgrade from AA to AA+ for Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA)'s multiple purpose bonds from Fitch Ratings last week. AA+ is the second highest possible rating from Fitch. The rating applies to all outstanding long-term debt under the multiple purpose program and should help lower the cost of affordable housing financing through VHFA.

VHFA’s Executive Director Maura Collins praised the ratings change, remarking, “This announcement from Fitch reflects increasing confidence in the strength and stability of VHFA’s bond offerings, and the long-term stewardship of the agency’s financials. The upgraded rating will allow the Agency to give more Vermonters access to safe and affordable homes. ”

VHFA sells bonds to investors to raise funds for its affordable homeownership mortgage program and its loans to affordable rental housing developers. The upgraded rating will reduce the Agency’s cost to issue bonds. The savings from these reduced costs will be passed on to VHFA borrowers, allowing more resources to flow towards VHFA’s rental and homeownership programs.

The announcement from Fitch cited several factors leading to the ratings upgrade, including strengthened asset quality, strong cash flow and asset parity, continued financial strength and sound portfolio performance.

VHFA currently anticipates that its next multiple purpose bond sale will take place in February.

Pictured: Jack LeClerc, who received a VHFA mortgage with down payment assistance.  VHFA’s homeownership programs are funded through the Agency’s sale of multiple purpose bonds.