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Local, State, Federal Officials Hold Housing Discussion In St. Johnsbury

Feb 16, 2024

A panel of local, state, and federal officials discussed housing in St. Johnsbury Thursday.

The group, which included Sen. Peter Welch and USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Farah Ahmad, weighed in on the challenges and opportunities to address what is widely considered one of the most pressing issues in Vermont and rural communities nationwide.

“The housing crisis impacts families in every corner of Vermont, and finding solutions to address this national emergency head-on requires coordination at all levels. Today, we heard about successes and challenges in addressing this crisis and shared ideas on how we can work together to implement new housing plans to build better futures for our communities. Having these conversations is crucial to developing comprehensive solutions to address the affordable housing shortage and rising homelessness crisis in our state and across the nation,” said Welch.

The group met at Fairbanks Museum following the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the museum’s new Tang Science Annex. Participants included St. Johnsbury Town Manager Chad Whitehead, Assistant Town Manager Joe Kasprzak, Rural Edge Executive Director Patrick Shattuck, Umbrella Executive Director Amanda Cochrane, Catamount Arts Executive Director Jody Fried, Northern Forest Center President Rob Riley, Chris Cochran of the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, Seth Leonard of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, Preservation Trust of Vermont Executive Director Ben Doyle, Northern Border Regional Commission Co-Chair Chris Saunders, and Vermont State Director for USDA Rural Development Sarah Waring.

Whitehead and Kasprzak discussed how growing St. Johnsbury’s population was a priority for the community to maintain essential services for its residents and the wider region.

“For us to be able to afford all those things that we have come to enjoy – our full-time fire, our full-time police, we need to grow our population – there’s just no ifs, ands or buts about it,” said Whitehead, explaining that St. Johnsbury served as a hub community for the region.

Kasprzak reiterated that message – highlighting the town’s target of 8,500 for its population. “The drive to 85,” he said, explaining that St. Johnsbury currently has 7,300 residents, but in its heyday of the 1940s, St. Johnsbury had a population of 9,300. “So we think this is perfectly feasible, and we think it is critical in order to pay for the growing cost of essential services,” he added. Kasprzak explained St. Johnsbury’s code compliance program on rental housing and the town’s investment to improve the housing stock.

Shattuck noted the number of existing and potential projects that Rural Edge is working on and the need for collaboration across communities to get them done.

“The need for housing is dire across the Northeast Kingdom and impacts people across the economic spectrum. Each day, we get calls from people desperately in search of housing, many of those from folks in situations that they had never anticipated. Too, we are hearing from employers and town officials, concerned about the inability to fill vacant positions due to lack of housing or shifts in community composition as units change from permanent occupancy to second home or short-term rental. Thankfully, there is widespread consensus about the issue and the need for more housing. With towns, employers, and concerned citizens working collectively to address this issue, supported by funders and backed by our dedicated elected officials, we have the momentum and the will to tackle this – together,” said Patrick Shattuck, Executive Director of Rural Edge.

Cochrane explained the impact the lack of housing can have on those her organization serves and some of the obstacles they face.

Many highlighted the benefits the region had realized from the USDA REAP Zone (Rural Economic Area Partnership) and how its continuation was critical for the Northeast Kingdom.

Fried explained how the REAP Zone, which has resulted in the infusion of tens of millions of dollars, was critical to move projects forward, like housing, especially since the region lacked the access to market capital that more populous regions in Vermont had.

Ben Doyle, who grew up in Sutton, highlighted the potential that existed in revitalizing rural villages and their capacity to accommodate and influx of people that has been deemed necessary for the long-term health of Vermont’s economy.

Waring, who also hails from the NEK, plugged Glover as a potential beneficiary of that type of investment.

According to a release from Welch’s office, for a second consecutive year, Vermont has the second-highest homelessness rate in the nation. Vermont’s housing crisis was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with experiences of family homelessness increasing 213% since 2020, the largest percentage increase during that period in the country.

Vermont is also experiencing a housing shortage crisis. According to a 2023 report from the Office of the State Treasurer of Vermont, housing was the most cited reason for moving out of Vermont in 2021 and 2022. In Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, over 2,000 households are on affordable housing waitlists for just 931 total affordable units in the region; of the 931 affordable units, just 19 were available: a vacancy rate of 2%.

Following the roundtable discussion, Rob Riley, President of the Northern Forest Center, provided a tour of their renovation project on Railroad Street and their plans to develop a mixed-use building with commercial and residential units.

Story Written by Andrew McGregor, Caledonian Record

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