By Luke Baynes
The June 25 event at the Courtyard Marriott was called a retreat, but the Williston Selectboard used the occasion to move forward on a plan to improve affordable housing options in Williston.
In addition to the five Selectboard members, the retreat included three town officials and three Williston Planning Commission members. Also in attendance were Sarah Carpenter of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, Kenn Sassorossi of Housing Vermont and attorney Tony Lamb, who served as moderator.
Carpenter kicked off the evening’s discussion by addressing the high cost of Williston’s rental properties.
“Renting in Williston is very expensive,” Carpenter said. “The average rent as a percentage of median income is 47 percent. The benchmark that we always talk about is 30 percent. So essentially, that means that the renters you have in Williston are cost-burdened.”
Sassorossi put the problem in the larger context of Chittenden County.
“We don’t produce much new housing, which is one of the reasons why our housing supply (in Chittenden County) is as constrained as it gets in the United States,” Sassorossi said. “One measure (of that) is the vacancy rate. The vacancy rate in a healthy market is somewhere around 5 percent. In Chittenden County right now, it’s difficult to measure, but it’s well below 2 percent. So it’s clearly an undersupply of rental housing, which particularly impacts lower income families.”
Sassorossi, whose nonprofit work at Housing Vermont is aimed at creating perpetually affordable rental housing, suggested that the appeals component of the permitting process needs to be streamlined.
“For us, the biggest challenge is appeals—the fact that neighbors can appeal without any skin in the game,” Sassorossi said. “I don’t mind an appeal, but we ought to have a process that secures a resolution fairly fast. Otherwise, the appeals (process) is really a way of killing a project.”
Selectboard member Chris Roy expressed nostalgia for the Vermont of the ’60s and ’70s, when compact neighborhoods with modestly priced ranches and raised ranches were affordable first home options for young families.
“The concern I’ve had with Williston is it seems like there’s a lot of four-bedroom colonials that are being built, and then you have affordable housing, and nothing in between is being built,” Roy said. “What can we do to have that full spectrum?”
Carpenter responded that the problem is the lack of financial incentive for developers to build low- or mid-priced housing.
“It’s hard, because the developers want to go where it’s most profitable to them, and there’s not a lot of (profit) margin in the mid-range, lower-end pieces of real estate,” Carpenter said. “A lot of those earlier affordable developments were subsidized by the public. Now it’s all the developer’s nickel.”
Sassorossi offered an even bleaker outlook.
“I’m not sure that today’s raised ranch isn’t a condominium,” Sassorossi said. “That is entry-level housing. Because the land costs and the costs of building that raised ranch are too high.”
Williston Director of Planning and Zoning Ken Belliveau suggested that Williston’s affordable housing problem goes beyond macroeconomic factors.
“The most glaring example of a problem would be with Finney Crossing, which represents 356 dwelling units that we would expect to come online sometime between now and the next 10-12 years, and none of those units are required to be affordable,” Belliveau said.
Although Selectboard Deputy Chairman Jeff Fehrs stopped short of advocating that Williston become a direct developer or financier for affordable housing, he did urge the town to take a more active role in ensuring the availability of reasonably priced housing options.
“To me, the question is along the lines of how much of a player does the town of Williston want to be?” Fehrs asked. “If we want Williston to be more of an inclusive community, it seems to me we’ve got to really get off our high horse and actually help make it happen, instead of saying we want it to happen.”
Sassorossi submitted that a dedicated affordable housing group could help address the issue.
“You have a conservation commission. Maybe you need an affordable housing commission that can be there to serve as a resource and as a sounding board, as a way of thinking about ongoing housing policies for affordable housing,” Sassorossi said.
Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire proposed that the Selectboard adopt a twofold strategy, by having the Planning Commission examine potential improvements to the town’s Unified Development Bylaw, while also creating an affordable housing task force to look at other holistic approaches to the issue.
“If the board wants an action step, it would be to have staff categorize these different options and then assign them,” McGuire said. “Some would go to the Planning Commission and some would go to the (affordable housing) task force.”
Sensing a board consensus on McGuire’s proposal, Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig dispensed with the normal protocol of Robert’s Rules of Order by declaring the motion passed.
Not coincidentally, dinner was then served.