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By: Mia Watson

January 6, 2020

VHFA Executive Director Maura Collins
VHFA Executive Director Maura Collins

VHFA Executive Director Maura Collins was interviewed by Darryl Hicks for the December issue of Tax Credit Advisor, a leading industry publication focused on the development and financing of subsidized housing. The interview highlighted Collin’s new role as Executive Director and discussed her future plans for the Agency.

Excerpts from the interview are reprinted below:

Tax Credit Advisor: You filled some big shoes when you replaced Sarah Carpenter. What were your goals for 2019?

Maura Collins: This year was more than just the turnover of our executive director. We knew that our chief financial officer and IT director would be retiring. Then two of our multifamily underwriters moved out of the state for personal reasons. My goals were focused on building a strong, visionary and innovative team that would set us up for success over the long-term. I am proud to say we've done that. We are fully staffed. Our team has a wide spectrum of experience with technical and analytical aptitude and big picture community development thinking. I am very proud of the high-quality team that we have. As I look towards 2020, we're embarking on a strategic planning initiative that will help us look out over the next three years and help us leverage our unique offerings to borrowers.

Tax Credit Advisor: Have you brought a different leadership style to VHFA?

Maura Collins: I've been at VHFA for 17 years. I agreed with much of what Sarah did, so in many ways things haven't changed. Stylistically, I continually promote our mission. It is at the forefront of all my messaging. Our mission statement is printed on the wall of our conference room. I start all staff meetings and board meetings with a 'mission moment' that puts a face on the work that we do out in the community and centers us and reminds us of why we do what we do. I've also started a weekly video to stay connected with staff. It's a five- to six-minute video where I talk about VHFA's work. I have the privilege of traveling across the state and seeing some of our work in action. I bring that back to the folks who may not leave the office as much. I am trying to break down silos and remind people about the important work that we're all doing and connect them with that mission.

Tax Credit Advisor: Media coverage of the affordable housing crisis is centered on the most populated states and urban centers, while little attention is paid to rural America. How would you describe the housing situation in Vermont?

Maura Collins: We're seeing the same housing shortages that are prevalent on both coasts. It is regional within our state, like it is with most states. In our downtowns, we see a lack of units that is not keeping up with demand. There are various estimates about how many thousands of units are needed statewide and in each region. Half of our renters are cost-burdened and most of the waiting lists for rental assistance are closed. In Burlington, there were eight times as many applications for affordable housing compared to the number of available units. There absolutely is a need to construct more affordable housing, both rental and entry-level homeownership. In some of our rural areas, what we see as a constraint is the quality of housing. There may be an adequate number of units, but some are uninhabitable. Vermont and Maine have the highest proportions of seasonal and vacation homes. Sometimes it may appear that we have enough structures in a community, only to learn that they are not available for Vermonters to live in year-round. Employers constantly tell us that the lack of affordable housing impacts their ability to attract and retain workers. With short-term rentals really taking off, this is an area we've been looking at. We've studied the impact of the vacation home market for many years, but now I think Vermonters are looking for more policy solutions around short-term rentals, so that we can meet the housing needs of workers and Vermonters who live here.

Tax Credit Advisor: What are your biggest obstacles to increasing the supply of affordable housing in Vermont?

Maura Collins: The biggest obstacle is the lack of capital. Because of our small population, we get small-state minimums for federal funding sources that are used to create and preserve affordable housing. The other driving forces that push investing in affordable housing, most notably banks' Community Reinvestment Act requirements, are less of a motivation in Vermont. We don't have that many big banks domiciled here. We are constantly trying to navigate the realities of our small scale. Housing developments here are smaller, so we don't get the economies of scale. VHFA needs to be nimble and creative in leveraging the limited resources we have to increase affordable housing under that reality.

Tax Credit Advisor: Affordable housing advocates and conservationists are two powerful groups in Vermont that have not always seen eye to eye on how to build more affordable housing. How are you involving these two groups in your policymaking?

Maura Collins: There have been policy struggles between the two groups. If you imagine a parcel of land, and the question becomes are we going to conserve it or develop it, you can only do one. In the late 80s, the legislature created by statute an organization called the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB), which has a dual mission of serving conservation and affordable housing efforts. It has brought these two interests together and has been successful and won various awards. It has promoted smart growth models that the rest of the nation has only woken up to more recently. We've been able to protect our landscapes - which is so important to Vermonters and the people who vacation here -while also trying to meet the state's housing needs. At the same time that VHCB was created, the state formed a Housing and Conservation Trust Fund (HCTF) that provides the bulk of the funds used for housing and conservation efforts. The director of VHCB sits on my board and I sit on his board. We not only partner on policy initiatives but on funding affordable housing development.

Tax Credit Advisor: Zoning for Great Neighborhoods was created to help Vermont's towns meet their housing needs. Do you see this program and other efforts to modernize Vermont's zoning laws as key to your work at VHFA?

Maura Collins: Absolutely. We all know that there's not enough federal resources to meet the housing needs in our state. We do our best to allocate resources at the state level, but if there are not communities set up to welcome housing locally, then those resources and all those efforts fall flat. Part of the cost of homebuilding is due to local zoning and land-use requirements. The Zoning for Great Neighborhoods program identifies zoning adjustments that towns can make to directly improve affordability and availability of homes built in downtown areas. Everything we do in Vermont is underscored by this policy goal of supporting smart growth. While changing the regulations is important, the Zoning for Great Neighborhoods project gives our state the platform to have an open discussion about how we need to continue to be competitive and maintain our population and grow in the 21st century. Our state is not always viewed as accessible and most would say it's not affordable. A key to overcoming that reality and perception is to ensure that we're allowing for community development and housing construction in places where it makes sense. Each Vermont community, no matter how rural or urban, needs to be part of the solution if we're to be successful.

Tax Credit Advisor: Given the rising costs of construction, what has the Vermont legislature done (or not done) to provide more public funding to finance affordable housing deals?

Maura Collins: Our legislature has done several things to fund affordable housing. In 2018, VHFA issued a $37 million housing bond on behalf of the state. Almost all the proceeds have been awarded and are projected to create 700 new units of affordable housing. That was a huge investment made by the state. Some lawmakers are considering whether Vermont should issue another bond. We've had a state affordable housing tax credit program since 2000 that works well with the Federal LIHTC. It's a five-year tax credit that funds both rental housing and homeownership opportunities, including down payment assistance for first-time homebuyers. While the legislature has done a lot, there's more that needs to be done.

Tax Credit Advisor: What are your long-term plans for VHFA?

Maura Collins: VHFA will be focused on creating better partnerships and offering more conducive environments for developers and investments that lead to the development of more affordable housing in Vermont.