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Friday, January 28, 2022

More Than Money: Solving Our Housing Problems by Barbara Morrow

This letter was submitted by Barbara Morrow, the executive director of Orleans County Restorative Justice Center.

Our housing needs are based on complex – and simple – issues that have painfully hounded us for decades. Now, with an unprecedented amount of federal funds coming, we must look at the underpinnings of this dilemma and take action. Going upstream to look for preventable hazards may require political will, but save tax dollars.

Let’s begin with the definition of “homelessness,” which varies depending on the money source. Does homeless mean literally “without a roof over one’s head?” Or does “couch surfing” with friends and family qualify? Is human trafficking an allowable cost for a temporary roof? (Yes, we do have that here.)

We often hear people say we don’t have a homeless problem here. We look, and we do not see. If a homeless person does not fit our stereotype of a person wrapped in ragged blankets on the sidewalk, they pass unnoticed. If a person isn’t showing evidence of mental health issues, we don’t register their homelessness.

They work to blend in. They may or may not have serious mental health issues, treated or untreated health concerns. As one homeless person said, “You’d never know I was homeless would you? I do homeless well.”

Then there are the precariously housed. They have a roof of some kind over their heads, but it’s either unsafe or teetering. Maryellen Griffith, a lawyer with Vermont Legal Aid, produced a study showing that (pre-Covid) the average amount of rent arrears before eviction was $2,000.

Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to work with the precariously housed and prevent future arrearages? How can we reach people in this dilemma and prevent an eviction? We’ve seen evidence (mid-Covid) that such outreach can work and prevent a myriad of problems created by home loss.

Transportation and travel routes mean something. A lot of federal monies/policies originating our subsidized housing service models are built on urban or suburban models…just as our federally funded transportation systems.

Failure to keep travel conditions, routes, and distances in mind when creating and finding housing is a problem here. When your work is in Island Pond, and your home and kids’ school/child care is in Newport – that’s an issue. Sometimes it’s insurmountable. We must plan public housing in tandem with transportation. Hand-in-hand.

Relatedly, Orleans County has no homeless or cold-weather shelter. What would happen if each county had a homeless shelter? We would not have to transport homeless people to Barre-Montpelier, uproot adults and kids away from services, hometowns, and schools they are used to…and we could perhaps have them in a reachable place to provide prevention services. A creative, expandable-contractible housing model could be developed to meet this need. There are ideas out there.

The sale of homes for taxes is regressive. Too often, private housing up for tax sale ends in someone with a disability or an elder being put out, and scrambling. There’s usually a reason why taxes haven’t been paid. It’s really a heads-up that the homeowner is in over his/her head and needs help. What would happen if we ended tax sales and instead put a lien on the house? Messy. But really, why should someone lose their home over failure to pay taxes?

Towns are generally very patient with such sales, but as town budgets get strained, tax sales become more common. Increasingly, out-of-state buyers are evicting previous owner(s) or renters from homes some people have held over years when things were better. Could we build up the communication and intervention efforts between towns and the local

community action agencies and others? Is homelessness, anxiety, frustration, and poverty the answer we prefer? Even given the year-long grace period after the tax sale, many people don’t have the energy, skills, or knowledge to help them find another home or rescue the current one. A tax sale also robs a family of its financial legacy asset. Not a small thing.

Small “mom and pop” landlords are business people and need technical support (including on Fair Housing Laws). Sadly, too many small-unit landlords get in over their heads quickly, get disillusioned, and end up pulling their units out of the mix. This hurts everyone.

The St. Johnsbury area has a collaborating group of small-unit landlords; Newport-Island Pond needs a similar group but it doesn’t seem to be coalescing despite attempts to bring them together. Who or what can inspire them to come learn, share strength, and be accountable?

Mortgage-holding banks might be helpful here. Small unit landlords need a business plan just like any other business. Being a landlord is a lot of hard work, and would-be landlords need advising about what they are plunging into, for success.

The ”NEK” is not a mono-culture. What works for St Johnsbury doesn’t necessarily help Newport or relieve our housing issues. We’re talking about a mountainous rural area with the square mileage of Delaware here. It’s a cold 45 miles from the borderland to St. Johnsbury – in a bad car? Just no. As well, the idea that our lower population translates to fewer state-helping-dollars needs a review.

Chittenden County is indeed a high-need area. And it has transportation, shelter, and social service infrastructure which Orleans – N. Essex counties lack. While we are an area of tremendous assets, we also have social issues- housing among them- outsized to our population and therefore are high users of state dollars.

We need to look at geographic inequities in housing (and other services, while we’re at it).

Rental housing inspection needs to be formal, frequent, and professional. It was greatly disappointing to have S.79 vetoed in the last legislative session. House inspection, and support to upgrade problem buildings, is a critical aspect of decent living. We need more of it, with help for small-unit landlords to bring units up to standard.

As well, it brings sunshine (transparency, new eyes) into housing that may be sheltering drug activity. Sunshine is needed, not shadows. There is also data to support more owner-occupied rentals as being better maintained and productive. We have seen legislation proposed to incentivize that model downtown…it was not supported in Montpelier. Time for another look?

Mediation can help. Landlords and tenants can find common ground and resolve issues if we catch them before they become big, high, conflict.

Mediation is a common process. What’s hard is getting those involved to come to the table to talk. This is a cultural and a business issue. It can be resolved.

What about personal responsibility? Yes, it plays a role. But the question is, how big a role, really? No single family or individual can bear up under the preponderance of policy issues affecting housing. As well, our tendency to make a community member “The Problem” gets us off the hook to do the hard work of examining and changing policies, and dealing with the disabling idea of “deserving and undeserving poor.”

All community members, no matter their needs, behavior, income, or health, need a roof over their heads. We can accommodate them. If we start there, the rest can follow.

Barbara Morrow is the executive director of Orleans County Restorative Justice Center. These views may or may not be those of the board. For more information, contact the Center at 802-487-9327.

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