This commentary is by Don Turner, a former Republican state representative from Milton, former House minority leader, current Milton town manager and longtime member of the Milton Fire and Rescue departments. He was a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018.
Imagine, for a moment, you are a developer living in Phoenix, Arizona.
Let’s say you want to build a complex with 100 rental apartment units to accommodate the city’s growing workforce, targeted to those making less than the area’s median income.
So, you draw up some plans, walk into the permit office, walk out with a permit in-hand in just a matter of hours, and begin construction the very next week.
From a developer’s standpoint, it seems almost too good to be true. But it isn’t — Phoenix has recently been termed a “24 hour city(link is external)” because you can literally get a building permit in less than 24 hours.
Now, let’s say you are a developer looking to build the same size housing building, with the same number of units, targeted to those below the area median income — but this time, you’re in Brandon, Vermont.
You start off the same way, drawing up plans with your architect. Then, you have to submit a permit application with the zoning office. The local development review board (DRB) holds several hearings over the next three months. Eventually, despite opposition from neighbors concerned about the impact of the project on the “character of the area”, you receive permit approval.
By the way, because your proposed development is located 500 feet from the boundary of Brandon’s designated downtown limits, you don’t qualify for priority housing project status. So, you have to file an Act 250 permit as well.
The DRB permit is immediately appealed by an opponent who lives 3 miles away, but who simply doesn’t like the project. You file an expedited motion to dismiss, but still have to hire an attorney. Four months later, the court finally grants your motion.
But back on the Act 250 side, things aren’t looking good. First, a full month passes by before you even hear back from the Act 250 district commission. Eventually, the district commission calls for a site visit and two public hearings. Three months after applying for the permit, you eventually are granted approval — but not before you are appealed again by another opponent.
Now, the court backlog is even greater. So, you have to wait a year before the case is heard by the Environmental Court. Eventually, it is decided in your favor. You are finally ready to start construction — with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent and well over a year having passed since applying — until you hear the Environmental Court’s decision has been appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.
I could go on, but this is the reality that many developers face in Vermont when looking to build new units of affordable housing. And with all the costs, headaches, and uncertainty, most developers wind up abandoning the process long before they even reach the final stages.
Here’s the scary thing: none of this is an exaggeration. Vermont’s permitting process is an absolute nightmare(link is external). Many permits still take months(link is external) before they are processed. And the average waiting time — meaning many wait longer — for an Environmental Court appeal of an Act 250 permit is 375 days(link is external).
All this is to say Vermont doesn’t have a housing “demand” problem. We’ve had high demand for housing for years, and while COVID-19 caused demand to increase it is still nothing that we are unfamiliar with. We have a housing “supply” problem, driven by an overly burdensome regulatory process that creates uncertainty, raises costs, and delays and deters projects from becoming a reality.
This isn’t to say the solution is the other extreme, such as a 24-hour city model like Phoenix. But there has to be a middle ground between the disappointing place we find ourselves in and a more realistic, predictable, and less cumbersome process.
Thankfully, there are a few commonsense steps we can take to get us there. Just a handful of ideas include: expanding priority housing projects; expediting review in depressed areas; increasing tax exemptions for construction materials related to certain projects; adding resources to the environmental court; and re-structuring appeal routes to add more certainty to the process.
We’ve spent years throwing more money at the problem with increased affordable housing tax incentives, an expanded down payment assistance program, and boosted downtown and village center tax credits. These are very important steps towards a fix; in fact, I voted for these priorities when I was in the Legislature. But if we continue to view our affordable housing challenges as only a demand-side problem, we’re going to keep falling short.
If we can make a concerted effort to increase the supply of housing through common-sense regulatory relief, we can lower housing costs without breaking the bank.
It’s long past time we take the first step toward making Vermont a housing destination — rather than continuing to accept the failed status quo.