Meaghan Emery: A municipal leader’s response to the omnibus housing bill
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This commentary is by Meaghan Emery, a member of the South Burlington City Council.
In response to the new housing bills being considered in the House and the Senate, I am writing on behalf of the taxpayer who will be asked to pay for state mandates and as a city councilor who hears the concerns of municipal employees expected to follow through on them by providing services.
A town is like an ecosystem, and a smoothly functioning system requires the careful calibration of many parts. To repeat the refrain of businesses that have identified housing as an impediment to hiring, for the system to work, there needs to be a balance between the human and infrastructure sides of the equation.
We agree. But when we talk about the system, we must talk about the whole system, which includes not only workers and businesses, but also municipal services, including transportation, emergency services, water/sewer, and schools. Without talking about towns and cities as ecosystems, made up of complex interdependent parts, we are bound to create imbalances and thus produce a failed model, of which many abound in this country.
Legislation, like any well-laid plan, must not be top-down. There must be a solid foundation, which requires careful groundwork in the form of municipal infrastructure.
I ask our state legislators to consider what, in addition to housing and jobs, new residents will need and whether the state will back up the bill with prerequisite investments so that these residents can live in thriving communities. On behalf of the taxpayer, I ask them to responsibly consider who is going to pay for all that comes with state mandates.
Beyond fairness in housing, the question of fairness extends to the burden of costs adjacent to services needed for a town or city to thrive — the ecosystem. Otherwise, when acting to fix one problem, lawmakers risk creating other problems, including for the very people they seek to help.
Many reading this will respond that population growth will cover the cost of these additional services thanks to the new injection of property taxes.
I ask you to look at property tax rates across the state. If you do, you will notice that the bigger the town or city, the higher the taxes. We here in Chittenden County pay the highest property taxes in Vermont and they are well above the national average. We — and I would suspect not only in South Burlington — have also paid for most of the costs of upgrades made to our sewer and water infrastructure in the form of bonds and fees.
We are facing a $34 million bond on sewer upgrades this year and a foreseen bond vote on increased water storage in 2024. Our rates are increasing 8.34% and 8.51% respectively, on top of a 5.75% tax rate increase, primarily to hire more police and firefighters.
At the same time, we are facing stiff increases for needed renovations to our public schools, and specifically a $14.5 million bond for modular classrooms as an interim step until we can build capacity in our buildings for the growing student population.
South Burlington is not alone in the struggle to provide adequate housing for our workers. We are not alone in seeking equitable housing solutions to be able to welcome prospective residents who could not otherwise afford the high price of housing. And we are not alone in facing the workforce shortage in police and fire services.
We are perhaps more alone in our search to provide enough classrooms for our growing student population in our public schools, however, and our aging school infrastructure placed our district in the 11th highest position in need of action, according to the Vermont School Facilities Inventory and Assessment.
The latter challenges have forced our superintendent of schools and fire chief to indicate on the Act 250 questionnaire that we do not have the capacity in our schools or in our emergency services to serve additional residential structures or residents. So, as we seek to sustainably provide houses for our workers in a thriving community, we look to the state to provide needed aid so that we can continue to provide a high-quality education for their children and emergency services.
We also look to the state for needed support to make public transit viable, without which our already congested roads would become even more strained and unsafe for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Bolstered public transit would likewise serve to meet the needs of our affordable housing partners, like the Champlain Housing Trust, and supports our climate action goals by reducing vehicular traffic.
A housing mandate without state aid for increased municipal services is simply not a plan for either affordability or sustainability.
We also look to lawmakers to support homeownership. South Burlington is in a minority of communities moving from a housing profile of predominantly owner-occupied homes to rental properties. If we are truly seeking to ensure fairness in housing, as I heard Champlain Housing Trust CEO Michael Monte say at the Feb. 16 joint House and Senate hearing, we must as a state make permanently affordable rental housing and the opportunity of homeownership our top priorities.
Mr. Monte spoke of the continuum of housing as one that moves people out of homelessness into safety and then on to the mobility and wealth-building that homeownership provides. This includes, I would argue, lessening the strain of property taxes.
In addition, as Michael Krancer of Stowe pointed out at the same hearing, the increase in short-term rentals is a critical factor in our housing shortage. Without putting into place tax-based incentives — as economist Joe Minicozzi recommended to the House Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 2 — or other incentives in favor of long-term rentals or owner-occupied homes, we may as a state risk exacerbating segregation in housing, counter to the goals of the federal fair housing legislation.
So, as lawmakers consider S.100 and H.68, please consider all the interdependent parts of municipal planning and ensure that any new law would buoy the whole ecosystem so that our new residents and growing towns and cities can thrive.
Read the story on VTDigger here: Meaghan Emery: A municipal leader’s response to the omnibus housing bill.
As Reported by VTDigger