Tom Evslin: Building affordable housing is not a good way to get more affordable housing

This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. It is republished from the Fractals of Change blog.

Was your first car a new one? Not unless you were very lucky. Mine was a ‘55 Chevvy bought in ’64 to get to my summer job. Its headlights were held on by duct tape. Did you leave your parent’s home for a brand-new house or freshly built apartment? Probably not. I moved into an aging “efficiency” with a hot plate for a stove; but it was better than living with my parents and close to my job.

Tom Evslin

In 1955 my car was new and someone bought it who could afford it. They or some successor sold it me as they stepped up into a new, new car. My dreary efficiency apartment was carved out of a larger apartment in a building which must once have been new. Somebody moved out of it and that made room for me to move in.

Vermont has two housing problems:

1) a homeless population, some of whom can’t afford to live anywhere (and some suffering from other problems which make them unable to care for themselves);

2) a lack of housing which health and day care workers, construction, and trade people – the people we depend on – can afford to live in.

There is a flood of federal money (debt we’ll have to pay some day as federal taxpayers). Both Governor Scott and the legislature want to spend a lot of that money on our housing problems. As much as homelessness is an acute problem and a misery for too many people, building low-income housing will not solve either housing problem. However, we can use relatively little money and a lot of flexibility to both create housing for the workers we want to attract and retain and to provide affordable housing for some of those now on the street.

New housing is not affordable to the homeless any more than a new car was affordable to me when I began to work. A work-around has been to subsidize either the cost of building the housing and/or to provide subsidies to low-income tenants in new buildings. Either way, we can only provide low-income housing until the subsides run out. Moreover, there is almost always local resistance to low-income housing from those who fear that its proximity will drive down the value of their own houses and perhaps make their neighborhood less safe as well. The low-income housing either doesn’t get built or is even more expensive requiring larger subsidies because of the long delay.

Suppose that we make it possible for more “market-rate” housing to be built, housing which people can afford to rent or buy without subsidy. Some of that housing will go to newcomers to Vermont (whom we need); the rest will go to working Vermonters who will move up from where they used to live and leave vacancies behind. In a phenomenon called “chaining”, other people will move up into the older housing which is now vacant and someone else with less money or less needs will move up to fill those vacancies. Eventually (two or three years according to some studies) the least expensive houses and apartments which were left behind become affordable to those who currently can’t afford any place at all. These vacancies – the used cars of the housing market – are in existing neighborhoods, not clustered in subsidized ghettos. No local opposition can stop them from being built because they are already there. It’s in the interest of neighborhoods NOT to have vacancies.

If we enable market-rate housing to be built with private money, the increase in available low-income housing is no longer tied to the subsidies available to build or rent it. Since there is high demand for housing in Vermont, housing will get build with private dollars in Vermont and that new housing will benefit both working Vermonters and the homeless.

So why isn’t private housing – other than McMansions – being built to meet the demand? The simple answers are exclusionary zoning and over-regulation. Many Vermont towns require large lots – 10 or even 25 acres – per house. (I live in such a zone in Stowe). Act 250 makes it much more expensive regulatorily to build a cluster of homes than to build a few very expensive houses on large lots. We subsidize leaving unproductive land in farming rather than let any of it spoil the view by having houses on it. Vermont villages often forbid buildings more than two stories high downtown. Other areas are zoned single family, no sharing allowed. The rich protect their view without the inconvenience of buying adjoining property and working families aren’t allowed to build. We are pro-housing in theory but anti-development in practice. New middle-income housing has nowhere to go.

As described in VT Digger, Fairlee, VT is making innovative changes to its zoning both to provide for growth and to preserve open spaces. Buildings in downtown will be allowed to grow to three stories, which makes an enormous difference in rental economics – two stories above the shops and restaurants instead of one. Holders of large woodlots will be able sell development rights to those with smaller lots. Income from those sales makes it more economical to keep the trees growing while the purchasers of the development rights will be able to build more densely on small lots.

Burlington is also looking at how to make more space available for housing development. According to VT Digger:

“Some of those zoning changes would put a large swath of the South End under mixed-use zoning guidelines, meaning it could be developed for apartments and houses. As part of Thursday’s announcement, the city released an agreement with neighborhood stakeholders endorsing the concept of an ‘Enterprise-Innovation District’ that would transform empty spaces and parking lots into housing.”

Even though we have a tsunami of federal dollars available, we won’t solve Vermont’s two housing problems by building subsidized housing. We don’t want to build used cars. We do want to allow (not subsidize) the building of market-rate residences in order to make housing available up and down the income spectrum. We can’t be both pro-housing and anti-development.

Image courtesy of Public domain

13 thoughts on “Tom Evslin: Building affordable housing is not a good way to get more affordable housing

  1. 1. Government regulation is needed to protect homebuyers from unscrupulous builders. Any home built in Vermont needs to be built according to regulations imposed by local governments (which are elected by the citizens).
    2. Don’t confuse “affordable” with “low-income.” The average income for a Vermonter is $34,577 ( Which means that under the 2.5 rule of thumb, they can afford an $86,000 house. As the median household income in Vermont is $62,000 (making a $155,000 mortgage affordable), this means that that the bottom half of all households in Vermont—that’s 130,000 below midline— simply can’t afford the price of the average Vermont home, which is $277,000. So much for “affordable” housing.
    3. So, is $34,000 “low income”? Not for someone who can find a Vermont house to buy for $86,000. Can we build good homes for $86,000? Yes, but not under neoliberalism.


    The US faces two major simultaneous challenges:

    – Reduce the impact of rising prices of energy and other natural resources on US global competitiveness. In 1973 the US was using about 60% more energy per dollar of GDP than other industrialized nations. After 36 years that percentage remains unchanged. The US needs to rapidly reduce that percentage by greatly improving the energy efficiency of buildings, transportation and industries.

    – Stop the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and ultimately reverse it to 1990 levels. The US needs to shift most of its power production from fossil fuels to alternatives, such as nuclear and renewables, such as solar, wind, hydro and bio.

    Largely due to lobbying by well-organized interest groups, federal, state and local governments have allocated about $40 billion for incentives for alternative and renewable energy and, due to a lack of similar interest groups, only about $20 billion for energy efficiency improvements. These numbers need to be reversed, because opportunities for energy efficiency improvements exist by the tens of millions, they can be quickly implemented and have shorter paybacks than those for alternative and renewable energy. Energy efficiency incentives need to be at least 4-fold to deal with the magnitude of the energy efficiency and reduction of CO2 challenges.

    Current incentives in Vermont and elsewhere to build ENERGY STAR houses, buy hybrid cars and solar, wind and geothermal systems, etc., benefit mostly the top 5% of households which do not need these incentives, whereas the 80% of households with low and medium incomes which live mostly in older, drafty, poorly insulated energy hog houses lack the funds to improve their energy efficiency and reduce their CO2 emissions. A better policy is to limit all such incentives to households with gross incomes less than, for example, $60,000/yr.

    The US residential and commercial sectors use about 21% and 17% of all energy, respectively. It will be necessary to reduce their energy use 1/2 of their current levels. In Germany demonstration office buildings use about 15% of the energy normal office buildings use. Specially designed super-insulated houses use about 25% of the energy normal houses use. Such buildings require major changes in construction methods and in building equipment and systems. The US building industry has obstructed these changes, because most of its members have no knowledge of them. They prefer to stay with what they know. Large numbers of government-sponsored demonstration projects, financed with low interest loans, capital grants, tax credits, etc., are needed to jump-start the building industry towards energy efficient buildings.

    Order of Effectiveness: Arranged in order of payback period, these measures are:

    – Efficient framing and insulation
    – Energy Star appliances; LED lighting
    – Air-source heat pumps for space heating and cooling
    – PV solar systems to provide almost all electricity

    Passive Measures: With regard to houses, various studies, demonstration projects and actual experience in the US, Europe, Japan, etc., have shown that PASSIVE measures, such as roof overhangs that shade windows in summer and not in winter, super-insulating, sealing air leaks, using triple-pane windows and foam-core doors, are the most cost effective way to reduce the energy loss of the envelopes of NEW houses by up to 70% compared to houses built to the latest energy codes. The cost of these envelopes is about 10% more than envelopes built to the latest energy codes. Passive measures work without effort of the occupants.

    Active Measures: Efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, water heaters, lighting and appliances ADDED to the above passive measures will further reduce the energy use of new houses by up to 20%. The cost of these measures is about 5% less than those for houses built to the latest energy codes, because the energy use of super-insulated houses is much less and can be provided by more efficient equipment and systems with lower capacities.

    People will be very reluctant to reduce the energy use of EXISTING older houses, condos and apartments by at least 70%, because the capital costs are high compared to the annual savings. Tens of millions of such housing units cannot be upgraded for such low energy use and will need to be replaced. Low interest loans, capital grants, tax credits, etc., will be needed to jump-start the retrofitting of the remaining housing units. It will take decades to replace 50 million houses x $250,000/house at a cost of at least $12.5 trillion.

    After the residential, commercial, transportation and industrial sectors are made more efficient, the electric power grid is upgraded to accommodate variable solar and wind power, user consumption and demand management systems are installed and about 100,000 MW of new nuclear plants are built to replace existing plants, most older coal, oil and gas fired power plants may be decommissioned. The US will use less than half the energy per dollar of GDP, emit less CO2 in 2050 than in 1990, and be less dependent on foreign oil and gas.

    Energy Efficiency is Smart: Building a very efficient house is very mart, because it provides increased comfort, and lower energy bills.

    Because of much lower PV solar system prices, and much lower battery system prices. and readily available insulation and sealing materials, it has become much easier to build a house that is entirely OFF THE GRID.

    The utilities and fuel companies are desperately trying to prevent that idea from taking hold. It would greatly reduce their markets, and for those still on the grid, energy prices would go up, giving them even more of an incentive to “cut the cord”.


    In the US there are three major rating systems aimed at reducing the energy use of houses:

    – HERS, or Home Energy Rating System
    – LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design

    The three rating systems are described below. HERS, because of its versatility and simplicity, and the increased emphasis on much greater energy efficiency, appears to increasingly replace the ENERGY STAR rating system. The less strict parts of the rating systems can be implemented with conventional wood frame construction. The more strict parts require unconventional construction methods, such as wood frame with sprayed foam insulation, structural insulated panels (SIPs) and insulated concrete forms (ICFs).


  3. Burlington is a prime example of too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to housing policy. The South End/Pine Street, as noted, is full of possibilities for converting existing space into housing that is on public transportation lines, close to jobs, consumer goods and social services. The biggest opposition there is the relatively newly evolved “artist community”, and the idea that “valuable studio space” would be squandered by such a trivial purpose as “housing”. Well. it was mainly industrial before the “artist boom” took over, and even “artists” need to live somewhere. It’s a matter of priorities. There is already plenty of “art” slathered on buildings, fences and dumpsters all over Burlington, some invited and some not. Burlington politics and philosophy is essentially attracting and inviting drifters and deadbeats from all over the Country to share in their rapidly-deteriorating dystopia. Let Burlington accommodate them.

  4. Where do I begin?
    1. I have never been a consumer, accumulator, nor desired THINGS, like a new home, a new car, a new gadget – I saw the relationship to raping and pillaging our natural resources and want no part in that. I live small, tiny even, and consume little in the way of THINGS. I am almost self-sufficient where energy consumption, and resource consumption go.

    2. I desire a cabin to live in with no more than 256 sq. feet made out of ALL NATURAL MATERIALS, unprocessed, direct from small, local lumberyard, or the back 40, in the woods, by a stream or pond, and within 1 mile walking distance of a road. I do NOT want to be connected to the Internet of Things – in fact being around EMFs now saturating Vermont’s roads, byways, and housing options by design and regulation – as my health is JUST returning to semi-normal from ten years of over-exposure before I realized what was poisoning me: radiation from wifi/electric pollution. Regulations now require new housing, in order to be funded, to have IOT built into it, not to mention the poisons in the processed and manufactured materials homes are requried to be made out of, processed, no doubt, in China not Vermont, to have IOT connections built into the walls. Those are death traps, literally, for me. I almost died from over exposure to wifi.

    3. In the past year, rents have skyrocketed to 3 times what they were in 2019. I’m semi-retired at nearly 71 – I still work – and am facing homelessness (which my landlady euphemistically is framing as ‘caravaning lifestyle’ to justify my expulsion so her new boyfriends adult sons can have a place to stay when they leave their city settings for a rare just in case visit) that will vacate a perfect cabin for 11 months of the year, return it to the critters that had moved in when I came here, and force me into homelessness on the road. Reality check: No permanent address, no access to internet except through wifi which I cannot do if I want to stay healthy, having no privacy, and no safety net, and having to put everything I own in storage, is NOT a goal for me. I want to live simply simply to live. I’m being forced into living in a tiny, uninsulated camper come spring – somewhere in Vermont. I won’t be able to pursue…even commenting here. Oh wait. That’s the goal – to destablize, defund, and dehouse those of us who think against the grain.

    4. There’s nothing romantic about homelessness. I am not a drug addict. I work. I choose a different lifestyle that keeps me in shape, connected with nature, and safe. Cabins are no longer rentable because of housing and rental regulations that discourage cabin owners to rent them out…except at exhorbitant ‘glamping’ fees…glamorizing homelessness …you can experience it too…for a fee… and precluding those of us who want a different lifestyle and do not want to go into debt, let alone feel any kind of ownership right of the earth. I am totally willing to pay a few hundred dollars for 260 sq feet of cabin – dry and off grid. That’s what its worth as I put all the blood, sweat and tears in after that. As is is the term used when renting these cabins, and believe me, that is WAY better than being homeless.

    5. State farms and schools where struggling human beings could learn how to grow their own food, animal husbandry, canning and preserving, and agroforestry, existed in every town in the State – look for your ‘State farm’ road in your town. On that road, a farm existed where the indigent could stay, work, and learn to take care of themselves. Intentional communities are ‘glamorizing’ of these ideas, taking it, once again, out of the reach of someone who could use it.

    6. Framing the poor as ‘addicts’ or ‘criminals’ is the voice of pure unadulterated privilege speaking. Just like my landlady who glamorizes being homeless. Both extremely cruel and dangerous perspectives that remove any responsibility of the rich to be sure the least of us are cared for and safe, and IN THE MANNER TO WHICH THEY ARE ACCUSTOMED…not what the privileged think that should be. I can tell you this: WE know how to scrimp, budget, live on nothing, aren’t fat, and every day, face the struggle of living hand to mouth. I don’t consider myself poor. I consider myself with different values. I’m out of place in an IOT world. I choose this lifestyle consciously.
    Does that make me wrong? Bad? Evil? A criminal? An addict?

    7. Rent control. Rent control. Rent control.
    8. Stop over regulating housing to standards that make sense in NYC, but not in rural Vermont.

    I’ll stop here. Vermont is my home state. I have no place to go in June but a tiny 7×10 trailer. And no place to put it that is safe (yes, safety is a factor on the road for single women of any age).
    Communist China says I am a useless eater and don’t deserve to rest safely, in a lifestyle of my choosing and making (you MAKE this lifestyle…its not made for you), and am told, “I know what’s good for you”, and you better comply or else.

    Homeless in the spring – who cares?

  5. About though big governments affect on the housing market with it’s regulation, certain things are necessary, like building codes. There are electrical codes, HVAC, plumbing, building, and septic system codes where town sewers aren’t available. All of these exist because when they didn’t people lost money and lives. Whether they are federal, state, or local regulations they are necessary. I’ve seen a lot of renovation with electrical nightmares that contractors did themselves, without a licensed electrician and followed up by an inspector. I’ve seen the same in new build commercial settings. It’s a miracle houses and lives weren’t lost. There were fires, sparks, or circuits that kept tripping their breaker. There is no way to build safe housing without regulatory codes and inspections.
    Act 250 and other environmental protection regulations are only as good their enforcement. I know property owner 1 whose piece is adjacent to property owner 2. Property owner 2’s defective septic system has for years contaminated property owner 1’s land and adjacent protected wetlands. Complaints were filed with state and local agencies for years to no avail. Property owner 1 was told by the state that property owner 2 is untouchable because of political ties. Good regulations are worthless if not unbiasedly enforced.

      • Script rally speaking and economically speaking money goes to those who handle it well, not squander it. There are instances where corrupt people or organizations con/steal/swindle money out of others. Montpelier is a wonderful leading example of this.

    • VERMONT got along fine before all the regulations came in. Insurance companies are a good barometer of what is needed.

      No we don’t need ALL these rules and regulations. A small one bedroom cabin is not allowed in our state. Must have this, that and the other thing.

      In survival they talk about the rule of three. 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter ( properly clothed/housed), 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food.

      We created our own problems, this does provide opportunity, because we only need to change our minds and the problem is solved.

      If there weren’t so much liability, aka attorneys making money and trouble, it could be solved instantly by people allowing others to live in their homes/garage/tent/camper. But the risk is so great so somebody getting sued for slip and fall, eviction, substandard this or that, theft, false accusations of sexual assault, etc, People are left in the cold of winter or homeless shelter with few friends.

      We’ve made this a lonely, inhospitable, unloving of our neighbor state. But as the Pharases would proclaim, we’ve followed the letter of the law, we are blameless and worthy of praise. Lol, well until Jesus came to town. Jesus, please don’t forsake us, come back into our state and more importantly our hearts, in your name I pray. Amen.

      I think this might be applicable with the story of the Good Samaritan too.

  6. Many towns in VT face restrictive building zones because they were originally settled along streams and rivers. The restraints on building in the higher elevations have clustered most towns and villages in the “flood zones” or encroaching on precious “wetlands”. This gives us limited options on new development.
    As Vermont’s housing stock ages, many homes are rotting due to neglected maintenance. The cost to make these homes affordable to lower income or limited income seniors is daunting because of the ever increasing energy cost to heat these homes. Although some government $$ are available thru energy efficiency programs it often requires and inordinate amount of spending on the part of the owner. Finding a contractor to do the actual work is another dilemma, what with the aging workforce retiring and few willing to pick up the tools and knowledge.
    State lawmaker policy proposals of taxing heating fuel often found in older homes, don’t help the struggling families trying to put food on the table either. Draconian penalties for using that old “’55 Chevy”(substitute today’s used vehicle with its low gas mileage) will only force more to cut back on other necessities, because , hey, which of those “low income” families have the ware-with-all to buy that EV, home charging station,solar array or heat pump?
    So getting to the solution of affordable housing will take a myriad of solutions most importantly getting bureaucracy out of the way and letting local government solve the issues with a desire to do the right thing for the blue collar families without the coercive “beatings” of bad State and Federal policy interference.

  7. It’s way more indepth….

    People are making too much money on “affordable housing” which should be properly relabeled as state funded assisted rental properties. They do have a place in the world, but Vermont is a one trick pony. There is so much corruption and profit in the system that it will not change. Even when zoning is changed…this will not.

    That’s because it’s the plan, soviet style housing, championed by Bernie no less. Renters, renter, renters.

    1) Boarding homes, we used to have them. Pretty much outlawed.
    2) We have homeless because of our lenient drug laws, terrible medical system (mental health) and our gravy train of money inviting more people to our state.
    3) We value and protect livestock more than our brothers and sisters.
    4) People in some cases are unwilling to work.
    5) We outlawed very modest housing that our forefathers founded this country upon.

    Don’t see this changing on the horizon any time soon.

    And everyone shows their “bias” when they say affordable housing, low-income housing. Guess what, our minimum wage in the state of Vermont is higher than 96.7% of the entire world! We are so rich AND spoiled we don’t even know it.

    We don’t need ANY money to do ANY of this. We only need to get out of the way and let people live their lives. We need to educate our people, the church is dead in Vermont which has a direct correlation on it’s populace. Our churches, our government are both corrupt for the most part, just as when left England. We have no wisdom; we can’t discern between truth and lies. Which allows those above us to get away and do the things the do.

    Think about it. We’d turn somebody in for animal cruelty if they didn’t bring their dog in at night. We’d build a doghouse or a shelter for our pony, would we spend $353k for a one-bedroom doghouse? This is what we are doing, and the dog lives for free? Surprised we don’t have a bigger que.

    • Hi Neil,
      The problem is really simple:
      The state of Vermont takes too much money out of people’s paychecks.

      Taxation Is Theft
      We are really not entitled to a whole lot.
      Let the people be free, keep their money and we’ll figure it out ourselves- like we all used to do.

      • And then they retake it back again with “fees”, regulatory hurdles, so iguanas yes taxes are a major problem, huh.

  8. In Esses I watched Indian acres being built and sold to new WW2 GE families
    Nice 3 bed ranches and 2 stories, many different designs, supremely affordable then and mostly so now.

    How? No idiotic and oppressive demands by Gov’t that everything must be perfect, fit for a King!

    We could do the same today. Look at Act 250 and ACT 200, Planning commissions, Permit Gurus,
    and DUMP most of their most expensive demands.. Built for the real market, not for the Regulations

    Replace “Pretty People” with real people.
    and idilac commands/demands

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