The ongoing debate about the growth center designation goes to the heart of the conversation about affordable housing in Montpelier. The discussion about affordable housing, in turn, is central to the question about the economic development needs we have. Right now at least one of our major employers is looking to develop new offices in Burlington because the majority of its employees commute from there to work. Another employer might go out of business because of a lack of affordable housing for the people who work there.
“Affordable housing” and “subsidized housing” are loaded terms and conjure up images of shabby developments for low-income residents, with the crime and deterioration that come with poverty. But here’s a fact: The median income in Montpelier is $60,587, and the median housing price is $208,000. Those two numbers don’t match — a lot of people who work in the city simply can’t afford to buy a home here. We need new units that are built for young families, and new units that are built for elders, and units for young people. At prices they can afford.
Look at the homes in town the Central Vermont Community Land Trust manages. If you don’t know where they are it’s because you can’t tell the difference between them and their neighbors. Yet the financing and ownership structures they use make it possible for people to own and rent the units they manage at affordable rates.
The current growth center was designed to provide state benefits and incentives to anyone developing new affordable housing on our existing infrastructure — where the water and sewer lines go in town. Housing built on city infrastructure lowers all our utility rates because when our water and sewer systems have more customers, all of our rates go down. It is also less costly to build, because expensive wells and septic systems aren’t needed to accommodate the new homes.
The calls you hear for shrinking the growth center are coming from people who already own homes here and who don’t want new development in their backyard. And from landlords, who don’t want competition for the shabby units they are now able to collect high rents from because there aren’t alternatives available.
The argument that “properties in the growth center aren’t walking distance from downtown” is a red herring. We need more housing on our existing water and sewer systems. If those systems go a bit farther out than most people would like to walk, perhaps the people on those lines should pay a premium for the low densities there? That would be more equitable than eliminating the incentives for housing.
The growth center boundaries can be changed, and the current zoning proposal, developed at great expense over the last three years, does change the boundaries. We worked hard to consult with the neighborhoods on the boundary changes, and it is ready to go. Unfortunately, the people who don’t want new development in their neighborhoods are leading the way right now to significantly reduce the area covered, which in the future will increase taxes and utility bills, because we don’t have enough customers and taxpayers on the rolls.
Gwendolyn Hallsmith is the former planning director for Montpelier.
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