April 21, 2014

Affordable Housing Task Force provides ‘buffet’ of options

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By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

After working for a year to evaluate the state of Williston’s affordable housing and what can be done to improve it, the Affordable Housing Task Force presented a list of concrete suggestions to the Selectboard on Monday.

“Those of us who work in affordable housing a lot are aware of how dire this situation is in the entire county,” said Selectboard and task force member Debbie Ingram, adding that there are many people who work hard and make a decent living, but still can’t afford to own a home in Williston or Chittenden County.

“I think the town is poised to be able to be a leader in the county in this extremely important issue,” she said.

The task force—made up of members of the Selectboard, Planning Commission and Development Review Board, as well as town staff, community members, and housing experts—began meeting in February 2013.

Its report painted a not-so-rosy picture of the state of affordable housing in Williston, finding that the town is one of the most expensive places in the county to buy a home. In addition, a large chunk of Williston’s homeowners struggle to afford their homes.

Housing is considered affordable when it costs 30 percent or less of a household’s income.

The task force found that more than a third of Williston homeowners spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing—making it unaffordable—and nearly 8 percent pay more than a whopping 50 percent.

Most of Williston’s housing that is affordable at 80 percent of the area median income is targeted toward seniors.

The outlook for renters in Williston is worse. Williston offers just 3 percent of the county’s rental properties. In those units, 32.9 percent of renters spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing, and 66 percent of renters spend more than 30 percent. That leaves a measly 1.1 percent who can afford their rent.

Board member Jay Michaud expressed some concern at the figures.

“It is a little alarming,” he said.

MOVING FORWARD

The task force recommended that the town become more proactive in promoting affordable housing, and suggested hard goals for a number of affordable homes to be built over the next ten years, a consideration driven in part by the limits of the town’s sewer capacity.

Estimating that the town would set its growth management limits at 600 new units over the next 10 years, the task force recommended that: 375 of those units be affordable to those earning 120 percent or more of the median income (approximately market value); 75 units affordable for those earning 100-120 percent of the median income; 75 units affordable for those making 80-100 percent of the median income; and 75 units affordable for those making less than 80 percent of the median income.

The group also recommended that the board reduce impact fees, as well as water and sewer connection fees, for affordable housing projects and create more incentives within the bylaws.

It also suggested reserving a portion of growth management and sewer allocation strictly for affordable housing, which could make such projects much more appealing when developers compete for the limited allocation.

It also suggested creating a housing trust fund to support affordable housing developments and programs.

Finally, the task force recommended that the town establish a standing committee on affordable housing, which would work to monitor and evaluate the town’s efforts at meeting affordable housing goals, as well as play a role in administering a trust fund, if one is established.

“This is good work and what I also like is it gives us a buffet of options,” Selectboard member Christopher Roy said. “Some are cheaper than others, some are longer range.”

Acknowledging that the worst-case scenario would be that the report is relegated to a shelf to collect dust, the board directed the Williston Planning Commission to begin working on implementing some of the group’s recommendations.

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