The state project envisions new housing in 5 Vermont communities

The state project envisions new housing in 5 Vermont communities

People walk past a blue house on the street
With maps in hand, state and city officials walk through Virgin’s neighborhoods to imagine denser development. Image provided by the Department of Housing and Community Development

VERGENES — In the eyes of Vermont community planner Amy Tommaso, the state’s smallest city is an ideal laboratory to test a potential solution to its housing crisis.

Virgin, which is just 2 square miles and home to about 2,560 residents, recently reformed its zoning regulations to accommodate denser residential development.

“We set goals in our plan that we want to actually increase our population, because there are so many benefits to having more people,” said Shannon Haggett, chair of the city’s Planning Commission. “More homes means more people. More people means more money in terms of people going into our school system, a bigger tax base, and more trade in our stores and shops.”

To that end, the city is one of five municipalities participating in a state-led project aimed at identifying nooks and crannies where residents and small developers can build new housing.

Tommaso, who is leading the project, studied “different fronts” of the state’s massive housing crisis, including Vermont’s “really slow” rate of new housing construction, a housing stock that is the second oldest in the nation, and a low rental vacancy rate.

“This means that on the renter-friendly and homeowner-friendly side, there is very little supply available, and it is not affordable,” she said.

The project aims to fill already developed downtown areas with more buildings offering a variety of housing options. Placing new housing downtown could make cities and towns more walkable, prevent urban sprawl and reduce the amount of local driving, Tommaso said.

In mid-October, state officials traveled to each of the selected municipalities — Arlington, Bellows Falls, Middlesex, Rutland City and Virginia — with members of the Boston-based architecture firm Utile to move through the first phase of the project. Among their most important goals: obtaining local support.

In Vergennes, on a recent Friday, a standing-room-only crowd that included members of the city Planning Commission, legislators, state officials from the Department of Housing and Community Development and members of the public gathered in a conference room at City Hall.

Utile representatives presented a range of flexible building proposals, designed to evoke Vermont’s existing style of architecture, and which ranged from accessory dwelling units to four-family apartment buildings.

They then presented a map showing part of the city south of Main Street. The parcels, most of which are privately owned, have been shaded in different colors to indicate whether they can host new buildings.

People gather in the room
Arlington residents hear a presentation from Department of Housing and Community Development staff and Utile, a Boston-based architectural firm hired by the state to provide designs for potential new housing. Image provided by the Department of Housing and Community Development

The project leaders were clear: none of the property owners would have to build new buildings on their land. Instead, the success of the project depends on the property owners choosing to erect new buildings on their properties.

After the show, the group took to the streets and walked through the neighborhoods shown on the map. Residents living within the map’s borders sometimes stick their heads out of their homes, curious about the two dozen pedestrians staring at their property. Some wondered aloud whether these locations were good for residential buildings.

While some residents may not be interested in the project, Tomasso said, she believes Vermonters have a greater appetite than ever to reimagine the function of their land. New housing can come in different sizes and shapes ranging from converting a barn loft to building a new multi-family dwelling.

The project aims to provide tools and ideas to potential developers. It can also stimulate and streamline additional zoning changes in each municipality.

“There was a recognition that this was a solution that would work for Vermont communities, and that it was bottom-up,” Tommaso said. “It’s local residents who decide they might want to develop further on their own land. It’s not a big company or government coming in and planting a big housing project in the middle of things.

In Rutland, Mayor Mike Dunges recently announced a goal of 1,000 new housing units by 2030.

“It’s a difficult goal,” said Andrew Sternest, the city’s planning and zoning official. “But we want it to be known that we are trying to encourage housing opportunities here in the city.”

Lawmakers funded the project, called Homes for All, through the 2022 appropriations bill, and comes after a decade of policy work aimed at facilitating development, Tommaso said. For example, in 2016, a government initiative provided municipalities with template language so they could progressively update their bylaws.

“Housing construction, denser development is not even possible with our often outdated laws,” she said.

The HOME Act gave the project a stronger foundation. The legislation passed during the last session, enacting statewide zoning changes, such as allowing duplexes and creating more flexibility for attached residences, according to Jake Hemric, director of community planning and policy at the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

“The housing crisis has become so widespread that many more people may want to become developers, or see themselves as potential developers, than before,” Tommaso said.

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