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Editorial: Window of Opportunity in the Battle for Affordable Housing

  • Gas pumps are idle at the former Cumberland Farms in Fairlee, Vt., on July 26, 2018. Across the street Evans Expressmart has also closed. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Fairlee is the latest Upper Valley community to recognize the critical need for more workforce and affordable housing in the region and to realize that providing some of it might be key to the town’s future vitality.

Town officials met with planners and housing developers late last month to assess the possibilities in light of the current availability of a group of open parcels downtown that could be developed for housing. They noted that Fairlee is a bedroom community whose easy access to Interstate 91 attracts residents who commute to work in Hanover or Lebanon. But lack of affordable housing is viewed as a factor limiting the town’s strong potential for growth.

“The window of opportunity is here,” Selectman Jay Barrett, an architect, told those present. “At some point, that’s going to close.”

Hartford, Lebanon and Hanover are other communities where affordable housing is being developed currently, some by private developers and much of it by the admirable Twin Pines Housing Trust, which is based in White River Junction and provides about 420 apartments to low- and moderate-income people on both sides of the Connecticut River.

As encouraging as these efforts are, the actions of the Trump administration in the face of a nationwide crisis in the affordability of housing are equally discouraging. The scope of the problem is vast, as described by The New York Times in an article last month. Millions of low-income Americans spend 70 percent or more of their incomes on shelter; between 2001 and 2015, as wages stagnated, median national rents rose by 32 percent in constant dollars, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. A worker making the minimum wage can afford a one-bedroom apartment at market rates in only 22 of the nation’s 3,000 counties, according to a survey by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

But according to analysts, the massive Trump tax cut enacted by Congress last year threatens a key source of funding for building affordable housing, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. They say demand for the tax credits could dry up as investors reap big savings from the tax cuts. One estimate is that the tax code changes could result in the construction of 235,000 fewer apartments over the next decade.

Moreover, Ben Carson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Community Development, is largely indifferent to the problem, according to the Times, viewing affordable housing as largely a local concern. If that weren’t bad enough, Carson is proposing to make matters worse by tripling rents for more than 700,000 of the poorest tenants who receive federal housing aid and raising the rent cap on 4.5 million households enrolled in federal voucher and public housing programs across the country. All this in the name of breaking what he regards as a “cycle of dependency.” Perhaps he regards homelessness as a form of independency to be cultivated.

There is, however, one part of the Carson program that makes a lot of sense. HUD is encouraging communities to review what steps they can take to make it easier for affordable housing to be developed. Lebanon, for instance, is thinking about lowering impact fees on new construction, which are assessed to compensate the city for the cost of additional public services the developments require; Hartford suspended impact fees indefinitely last year. In 2017, voters at the Hanover Town Meeting approved zoning changes allowing greater density and decreased on-site parking requirements for senior housing downtown. Next summer, Twin Pines is scheduled to begin construction on a three-story, 24-unit apartment complex for seniors and disabled people at Summer Park. In Fairlee, officials have been urged to seek state funding to determine whether an on-site septic system would be feasible for a downtown housing development.

And while we don’t by any means support wholesale dismantling of regulatory requirements, smoothing out and speeding up the permitting process could spur more development of affordable housing, which is a goal that ought to be widely shared. The Upper Valley and Vermont and New Hampshire more generally badly need to attract young people and young families with school-age children if they are going to continue to thrive. It seems clear that high housing costs are a major obstacle to realizing that goal.