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By: Mia Watson on 1/8/2020

The Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston (FHLBB) is inviting the Vermont affordable housing community to attend an upcoming listening session for its Affordable Housing Program (AHP). The program awards approximately $20.7 million in grants and low-interest loans through member institutions to organizations promoting homeownership and rental housing opportunities for low income households. Among the recent Vermont projects that have received funding through this program are Lake Paran, an affordable rental housing development in Shaftsbury, Vermont, which began construction this past October.

FHLBB is seeking input on Vermont community housing needs, the AHP awards process and how the program can better promote economic development, community
revitalization, health and climate resiliency. 

The working group session and luncheon will be held on February 18, 2020 from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m at Capitol Plaza, 100 State Street, Montpelier, VT. Registration via FHLBB's website is required. Space is limited to 50 attendees.

By: Mia Watson on 1/6/2020

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.

By: Mia Watson on 1/2/2020

The State of Vermont’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) is inviting the public to attend a series of community outreach meetings around the state to inform its upcoming HUD Consolidated Plan.  

The 5-year HUD Consolidated Plan outlines priorities for over $10 million in funding that Vermont will use for affordable housing and community development from 2020 through 2024. The meetings will allow the public to share their thoughts on local needs for public facilities, job creation, housing and homelessness, which will be incorporated into the plan. 

Meeting schedule:

  • Milton
    • January 23, 2020 from 5:00-7:00 pm
    • Location: Milton Fire Station Community Room, 47 Bombardier Road
  • St. Johnsbury
    • February 19, 2020 from 5:00-7:00 pm
    • Location: St. Johnsbury Welcome Center, 51 Depot Square
  • Castleton
    • February 4, 2020 from 5:00-7:00 pm
    • Castleton Fire Station Community Room, 263 Rte. 30 North
  • Springfield
    • March 9, 2020 from 1:00-3:00 pm
    • Springfield Cinemas 3, 26 Main Street 

DHCD also has an online public survey to receive feedback. DHCD encourages everyone to complete this survey, regardless of whether you are able to attend a public meeting. 

By: Mia Watson on 12/19/2019

VHFA celebrated Brenda Howley for her many years of service as she retires from the Agency this month.

Brenda Howley served as VHFA’s Legal Coordinator since 2011. She worked with VHFA’s General Counsel to oversee VHFA’s corporate records, loan closings, Agency bond issuances, and coordinated meetings of VHFA’s Board of Commissioners. Prior to coming to VHFA, she worked at several local law firms. She is a graduate of Champlain College.

 “Brenda’s attention to detail, organizational skills, and dedication to her work have helped the Agency run smoothly for nearly a decade,” remarked VHFA Executive Director Maura Collins. “We are excited for her as she pursues new opportunities during her well-deserved retirement.”

Howley is the Director of US Maher Friends, a non-profit organization devoted to raising funding for shelters and homes for women, children and disabled individuals in India. She is also a member of Dragonheart Vermont, a dragon boat paddling group that supports breast cancer survivors. Howley hopes to devote more of her time to these organizations during her retirement.

Pictured (from left): George Demas, Brenda Howley, Maura Collins

By: Maura Collins on 12/17/2019

This commentary by VHFA Executive Director Maura Collins appeared recently in VTDigger

Housing affordability can’t be judged just on how much it costs to rent or buy a home. Although those indicators are important, the total costs of housing, both for households and the community, depend heavily on where the home is located.

Vermonters who live closer to downtown areas incur fewer costs traveling to schools, jobs and amenities. These areas often have greater walkability and access to public transportation and require shorter drive times to destinations. In addition, compact development benefits the local economy, placing customers in close proximity to businesses. Downtowns are particularly attractive to millennials, 62% of whom wish to live in walkable communities that have short commutes. Most seniors over the age of 60 also think mixed-use neighborhoods with homes, shops and business are the ideal place to live, according to TransitCenter.

A survey from the National Association of Realtors found that convenience to jobs and home affordability were among the top factors affecting location choice among homebuyers. However, Vermont’s high rents and home prices have pushed many households farther and farther away from the areas where most jobs are located. Between 2009 and 2017, the number of Vermonters commuting 30 minutes or longer from their home to work rose by 6,000 while the total number of workers stayed constant. That means 32% of Vermonters now travel more than an hour to get to and from work.

Less expensive housing in more rural areas can have hidden costs. Long commutes mean workers spend more on gas and car maintenance, especially in the more rural areas that tend to lack robust public transportation networks. The median single family home in Burlington sold for $315,000 in 2018, while the median home in Georgia, Vermont sold for $280,000. However, assuming that households in both areas work in the Burlington area, a worker living in Georgia would spend up to $5,300 more every year in expenses associated with commuting. These costs add up considerably over time, especially in two-car households.

Long commutes have a number of other harmful side effects. They negatively impact workers’ mental health and workplace productivity, as well as leaving less time for families and community involvement. Increased commuting time also harms our environment, with increased wear on roadways, higher emissions and more fossil fuel consumption.

Housing development in rural areas far from jobs and other destinations also has significant consequences for municipalities. It costs far more to pave and maintain roads, connect sewer lines and provide emergency services to homes spread apart on large lots than clustered in downtown areas. Some surveys have estimated that suburban development costs up to 38% more in up-front infrastructure costs and 10% more in service delivery costs than compact downtown development. Furthermore, compact development produces on average about 10 times more tax revenue per acre than suburban development.

Rural areas of Vermont need investment and should not be abandoned for ever-growing cities. Rather, when new housing is being planned anywhere in the state, the real costs of its location must be considered, both to households and to our communities. In recognition of these issues, there is a growing movement among Vermont planners for sustainable growth that allows more walkability and minimizes driving time while protecting working lands and wildlife habitats. 

Centering the development of new Vermont homes in towns and neighborhoods near jobs and services achieves many public goals. Our downtowns are nurtured, rural and forested parts of the state preserved, and more Vermonters have an affordable, transportation-efficient lifestyle.  However, making smart growth possible would take commitment at all levels:

  • The state would need to expand public transportation networks and offer more incentives for downtown commercial and housing construction.
  • Larger regional employers could work with communities to welcome smart residential development and revitalization that supports the workforce.
  • Vermont towns might have to adjust their zoning codes to facilitate compact development and invest in safe streets and other infrastructure.

A home’s true affordability depends on the inherent costs its residents face traveling to everyday destinations. By considering this in our personal and policy decisions, Vermonters can take a big step closer to economic and environmental sustainability.