The final weeks of the legislative session were busy with bills flying between the House and Senate but our work was recently completed with a “normal” end to a very abnormal biennium.
It will take some time to untangle what we have done overall. This immediate review is an initial summary of the work accomplished this year. Look for more in-depth articles from Rep. Wood and me in the near future.
For the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, I think the key accomplishment was the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a follow-up to the public apology by the General Assembly last year. (The Legislature passed a joint resolution apologizing and expressing regret to Vermonters and their families and descendants who were harmed as a result of state-sanctioned eugenics policies and practices in the state’s past.)
This was a social equity bill, and it will include Vermonters who belong to any number of groups that may have been harmed by our laws and policies over the 240-plus years of Vermont’s existence.
This commission will travel the state and hear from Vermonters who were harmed, and from Vermonters who benefitted from that harm. We have learned (and re-learned) that harm caused long ago ripples through history and comes to shore even today. Those of us here today may not be directly responsible for some of that harm, but there is a direct line from our culture today to the one we created over time.
This commission will do its work over a three-year period, and the commissioners will be tasked with listening, compiling and presenting the truths they hear to the Legislature in a way that will ask us, as representatives of the system at large, to find a way to be accountable to these populations as we move and grow into the future. I’m incredibly proud of the work done by my committee and hope the commission lives up to the difficult task it has been assigned.
The two major bills we dealt with in the final week of the session were related to housing. The pandemic has exacerbated our existing housing crisis, and the increase in real estate prices has created wealth for those Vermonters who already own their home, but made homes too expensive for some to buy, especially if they are first-time homebuyers. Rents have gone up, and availability is at an all-time low. The programs passed this session should make a dent in this crisis, but won’t solve everything.
S.210 will create a state-wide, complaint-driven rental housing safety program. This will provide the kind of enforcement that has been difficult for our volunteer town health officers to accomplish. The bill also provides for low-interest loans or grants to property owners who rehabilitate empty, non-code compliant housing that will be used for families exiting homelessness or who make below 80% of area median income, as well as for the creation of accessory dwelling units (formerly known as “mother-in-law” apartments). This program would not have been possible without the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The funds Vermont received that are being directed toward housing are historic, and while we are grateful, it is just a beginning.
S.226 is a larger omnibus bill. It appropriates money for down payment assistance grants to first-generation homebuyers — Vermonters who have not had the privilege of receiving help from parents or others who own property. We passed language that will allow Vermonters still struggling with their mortgage or their property taxes to request a stay of a tax sale if they have an application pending for homeowner assistance so they can stay in their homes.
There was copious language that will encourage more development in neighborhood, village or town centers, with tax benefits and better zoning. The bill requires home repair contractors to register with the state if they have a contract for more than $10,000 in order to provide consumer protection for their customers.
We created a Land Access and Opportunity Board within the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to help those denied easy access to wealth and property a place where they can advise the board in ways that will provide more equity to more people.
There is so much more, including over $110 million invested in workforce and economic development, along with tens of millions more to prop up our social safety net.
We are not done with the pandemic, and the future of more federal funding is not clear. But I am proud of increasing spending on housing, health and the general welfare of Vermonters at a time when it is most needed.
On a personal note, I will be running for re-election to the House of Representatives. With mask restrictions lowered, I am looking forward to visiting Waterbury, Bolton, Huntington and Buel’s Gore voters in a personal way that has been denied us due to the risks inherent during the pandemic.
Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, represents the Washington-Chittenden district of Waterbury, Bolton, Huntington and Buel’s Gore. He chairs the House Committee General, Housing and Military Affairs.
Waterbury Roundabout is a volunteer collaboration between Waterbury residents and UVM student journalists from the Community News Service, part of UVM’s Reporting and Documentary Storytelling program in the Center for Research on Vermont. We provide local news coverage about and for Waterbury, VT.