A Humane Response to Housing Crisis
On July 1, 2021 Vermont’s pandemic related emergency temporary housing program ended for 700 Vermonters. A court ordered two-week extension allows folks with disabilities to document their status in order to access temporary extended housing support until September. However, Vermonters without disabilities or the ability to document a disability will be left without housing this month and those with extended housing support will join them in September when that program ends. Many folks will return to living in tents or cars, and others might return to abusive living situations for the chance of a roof over their heads. All of them will be at increased risk of chronic health problems, substance abuse, and interpersonal violence.
In a time of unprecedented high temperatures and dangerously cold winters, with climate change’s devastating effects on our environment, the necessity for all Vermonters to have a permanent, safe, and livable home is clear. The state’s current plan to evict several hundred Vermonters this month without clear support for new housing is unconscionable, and reflects a deeper issue in the state.
Vermont has been in a housing crisis for a long time. For a period of time during the pandemic, Vermont chose as a state to house every Vermonter who needed housing. We acknowledged the humanity and importance of keeping vulnerable Vermonters safe and housed to weather the pandemic. We face a clear choice again: to revert to the status quo of allowing some to fall between the cracks or to boldly change our approach and ensure housing as a human right here in Vermont.
Maryellen Griffin, Anne N. Sosin, and Mairead O’Reilly of Vermont Legal Aid recently published an op-ed in VTDigger that clearly lays out the steps to combat this housing crisis. Chief among them is treating the housing crisis as the emergency it is. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen the ability of federal, state, and local governments to take actions previously thought impossible in order to keep people safe. We made transformative changes in how we operated in our communities. We can apply this transformative thinking to solving homelessness. Advocates in our state have documented how we can end homlessness in a small state. It is possible. We need the political will and leadership to make the bold moves necessary to make this a state priority.
We are on our way with the important investments made within the state FY22 budget. American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds will build more housing units in the next couple of years. However, we cannot simply build our way out of the housing crisis. We must do more to invest additional ongoing state resources to provide wrap-around social services to Vermonters once they access new housing. Vermont should also continue the housing assistance programs created during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the Vermont Emergency Rental Assistance Program (VERAP), the eviction and utilities moratoriums, and emergency housing programs, to help keep Vermonters in secure housing by offering short-term economic support them in their time of need. These short-term investments in supporting our neighbors will prevent long-term negative impacts on Vermonters’ economic well being due to an avoidable eviction or series of overdue utility bills.
Finally, and most importantly, Vermont must prioritize equity in the distribution of its housing programs. It is clear time and time again that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected people of color, and that Vermonters of color are already more likely to suffer from homelessness, housing challenges, and income inequality than their white counterparts. Disabled Vermonters have also greatly suffered during the pandemic, and Vermonters with special needs struggle even more to find adequate housing. The efforts towards housing for all will be incomplete if we do not seek to end these disparities through equitable and specific investments in groups often left out of the housing conversation.
Although the recent reopening of our economy and communities may feel like a return to the pre-pandemic times, none of us are the same people we were before COVID-19. There is no reason that our policies and funding priorities should remain the same either. We have seen that Vermont has the ability to house the unhoused, and effectively end homelessness with a few emergency policy decisions. We have seen unprecedented amounts of money come in from the federal government to support the state’s recovery. Any decision not to take action to end homelessness is not a matter of a lack of resources or solutions to the problem. It is simply a choice not to support one of the state’s most vulnerable populations. The time for change is now.
Rep. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak
Rep. Heather Surprenant
Rep. Selene Colburn
Rep. Taylor Small
Rep. Brain Cina
Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky
Rep. Mollie Burke