The bitterly cold weather we have experienced since the beginning of the year really focuses attention, especially in the State House, on the homelessness that Vermonters experience. It is a silent scourge, and that silence makes solving it even harder. People are usually experiencing homelessness through no fault of their own, but the shame and poverty of living in the shadows that we attach to this condition makes it worse and, for some, their mental illness makes it doubly difficult to find a permanent shelter. And while we dedicate resources to help people experiencing homelessness, we are also focusing on programs to prevent Vermonters from becoming homeless in the first place. If only we knew what they were.

Homelessness is a complex issue. To ask what causes it requires the patience to sift through the many strands of events and situations that can lead to a person or a family becoming homeless. It is an economic issue — you can fall behind on your rent in a minute, having to choose between food or heat or medication. It’s a mental health issue — a significant portion of the chronically homeless have difficult mental health issues. It’s a choice — we know that some homeless veterans, for example, feel more secure living outdoors, even when it is this cold. And it’s capacity — we continue to underinvest resources into programs that would provide sufficient shelter and housing in a way that stabilizes those who are experiencing homelessness.

Already this year, we’ve heard testimony about the good and bad news surrounding this issue. We heard from the Office of Veterans Affairs, which reported that, due to improved focus, outreach and provision of services, there are only about a dozen veterans who have refused services and chosen to live homelessly in Vermont. This is a huge success. We heard from the University of Vermont Medical Center and Champlain Housing Trust, who have teamed up to provide both transitional and permanent housing for chronically homeless and disabled people in Burlington. The concept being embraced is called “Housing is Health Care,” and is a result of the medical center finally realizing that the costs — financial and physical — of caring for the most vulnerable Vermonters can be reduced if they are provided with a home.

We also heard about a proposal that can stem the tide of homelessness for some by preventing evictions. Eviction is a terrible process, and it is excruciating for both landlords and tenants. A new study done by Vermont Legal Aid shows that 70 percent of all evictions are — simply — because of the nonpayment of rent. Many of these situations can be resolved if the back rent is paid. Vermont Legal Aid is promoting an increase in funding to an existing program in our Agency of Human Services that would provide qualifying tenants funds to pay their rent arrearage (and which would go directly to the landlord). The average rent owed is $2,000. The average cost to a landlord to evict a tenant — back rent, court costs, damage to the apartment — is $8,500. And by avoiding homelessness, a family remains stable and state services are not overtaxed. If we can provide the funds to make the landlord whole and bypass the eviction process altogether, we save money and stress, we provide stability to the tenant and landlord, and we turn a “lose-lose” situation around.

But here’s the thing: more affordable housing will reduce homelessness, plain and simple. We know how to do this, and we have a way to make it happen. Unfortunately, it appears that the administration is primed to underinvest in affordable housing once more by not transferring the statutorily required funding from the Property Transfer Tax to the Housing and Conservation Trust Fund (HCTF). This diversion of funds is not specific to this administration — it has happened over the last 20 years.

This is money collected by the sale of land and houses through a small tax on the purchase. This tax was created over 30 years ago, and the intent of the money earmarked for the HCTF was to acknowledge that as Vermont became a destination for many new folks, the price of housing and conservation of land was going to increase, perhaps putting some Vermonters at risk of not being able to afford a home. This tax was to fund new housing and new conservation.

So, what’s happened? There is a provision in Vermont law that says that the administration (and the Legislature, by nature of voting a budget that approves the transfer) can “take” those funds for other uses. In other words, the money from the tax collected on the sale of homes, meant to create new affordable housing, can’t be segregated and protected, even though our statute states very clearly what that tax is for. (It also pays for municipal planning grants and clean water programs.)

In this year’s budget proposal, we learned that the Property Transfer Tax was nearly $44 million, and the statutory share to the HCTF was $21.8 million. But the budget proposal would only transfer $9.8 million to the HCTF, with the remaining $12 million used in the General Fund. For what purpose? We don’t know. What we do know is that with the proper project and investors, we can turn that $12 million into $100 million worth of housing for those who need it most.

Over the last 20 years, the HCTF has been shorted by over $60 million, which could have resulted in over $400 million of new housing and conservation. I have introduced legislation to stop this practice. If we don’t fully fund this transfer, and let the people who have the knowledge, the creativity and the experience in providing housing to those who need it most, we are making a mockery of our promises of affordability and livability.

Don’t get me wrong — we do well, compared to others. A young man spoke on the steps of the State House and told us his story of homelessness and, while he continues to struggle, he came to Vermont because, in his words, Vermont is a good place to be homeless. No place is a good place to be homeless, actually, but he recognized that we do have services, and that we are trying to provide more. By diverting over 50 percent of the money meant to help solve that problem, we are never going to solve the problem.

Rep. Tom Stevens, Washington-Chittenden-1, is chairman of the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs. He is a Democrat.

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