Facing Vermont's housing problem
H.865 is an act relating to promoting workforce housing. It combines two bills, H.702, an act relating to a workforce housing demonstration project and H.721, an act relating to extending the first time homebuyer's Down Payment Assistance Program.
The lack of affordable housing for low and middle income Vermonters is a huge problem. In Manchester many folks who work in town cannot afford to live here. I have had conversations with John O'Keefe on this and have forwarded to him, and through him to the Select Board and his staff and colleagues information that I hope will help Manchester move forward in ways that will support our local businesses and the people who work in them through a pilot, new-housing initiative. At its core, H. 865 addresses housing, which is an important determinant of economic development and family stability in Vermont. Currently, Vermonters who are working in areas where they may have an opportunity to make a decent income have to be able to find decent and affordable local housing but many cannot. This bill recognizes that an investment in a pilot program may provide answers to problems that vex us when trying to provide both affordable housing for working Vermonters who make less than 80 percent of area median income in the traditional, if underfunded, manner, and housing that is affordable to working Vermonters who make between 80 and 120 percent of the area median income.
What makes housing affordable for renters or owners? Under federal definitions, housing that is affordable is housing where the cost, which includes taxes and utilities, does not exceed 30 percent of your household income. This rule of thumb helps potential homebuyers from overextending themselves financially. Above 30 percent it becomes a "cost burdened" and if your housing costs over 50 percent of your income, you are considered "severely cost burdened." "Cost burdened" means if you are paying 30 percent or more in housing to live everyday, you do not have enough money to save or to spend on other necessities. For some Vermonters, at the bottom of the income scale, those choices include paying for food, or clothes for your children, or heating in the winter. For Vermonters in the larger median, between 80 and 120 percent, those choices may include renting or owning, where and how close to their work they can afford. Cost burdens limit personal growth, and influence our decisions, and affect how employers can recruit a younger demographic to the state or area. For example, if you are given a good salary by a local hotel that include benefits but there is insufficient affordable housing the entire town loses. Fewer children in our excellent schools, fewer parents in the shops. More carbon wasted traveling many miles to the area. The list of lost revenue gets larger when people don't live where they work.
Traditionally, the state's investment in affordable housing has focused on creating housing for the neediest Vermonters — those, who but for the creation of affordable housing, would be homeless. That is a worthwhile goal. But the objective of this legislation is to provide two projects that meet certain standards with money that will subsidize some of the infrastructure needs in order to make a difference in affordability. H.865 proposes a pilot program wherein we will administer infrastructure funds to two projects, one that must be in a Vermont community with less than 10,000 residents, and one that may be in a Vermont community with more than 10,000 residents. These projects must be comprised of at least 12 units of rental or ownership housing, and can be a single building or separate houses. The proportion of income limitations is stated in the text of the bill, and the use of the funds is delineated. Administration of the program is, primarily, through the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.
The success or failure of these pilot projects will be reflected in reports back to the committees of jurisdiction. House General, Housing & Military Affairs committee voted 7-0-1 to approve this bill. The House in turn gave preliminary approval last Wednesday believing that revitalizing in downtowns by investing in workforce housing that is "perpetually affordable" for middle-class Vermonters is the way to move forward. The vote was 139-3 to invest $1 million from the Agency of Human Services into the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board with the express purpose of funding two pilot housing projects in the state.
I hope Manchester will be one of them. We need to apply to be one of those pilot projects. Besides that, the bill also offers millions in tax credits over the next 10 years to assist homebuyers across the state and extends the first-time homebuyer down payment assistance program to provide help for Vermonters with initial housing costs. My colleague, Rep. Tom Stevens, of Waterbury, said the assistance program has been successful since its rollout last year, offering 49 no-interest loans across 11 counties to homebuyers with an average age of 30. Legislators said the loan budget of $625,000 could assist roughly 120 homebuyers a year. Now that it is signed into law, the loan program will be extended by four years and will last until 2022.
Health Care VHC Showdown looming with Governor
The House Health Care Committee has continued to receive weekly updates on the functionality of Vermont Health Connect (VHC). In the last two months, operational metrics have slowly, but steadily improved. In early February, the change of circumstance (COC) backlog stood at approximately 5,600. It is currently at approximately 3,700. The 2015 COC backlog peaked at 10,200 last May. VHC averages 125 COC requests each day. Basically, Vermont legislators having heard enough of the VHC debacle last week tagged on an amendment to the affordable housing bill and by a vote on the House floor of 136-5 ruled in favor of an independent analysis of Vermont Health Connect. The goal of the analysis will be to determine if the state should ditch the system or continue to invest in fixing the problems. The vote sets up a likely confrontation between the Legislature and Gov. Shumlin, who does not support spending $400,000 for the independent review. The House approved the spending in an amendment to the workforce housing bill that also received tri-partisan support from the House.
The House Health Care Committee is continuing to take testimony on H.866 an act relating to prescription drug manufacturer cost transparency, on prescription drug pricing. Prescription drug prices have increased significantly without a clear causal relationship to drug companies' R&D costs. Four of the top-10 selling prescription drugs have more than doubled in price since 2011. The remaining six have seen their prices increase between 54 percent and 96 percent. DVHA reported a 19 percent increase in spending on prescription drugs in FY'15 and is anticipating another 7 percent increase this year. Big Pharma provides us with greatly needed medicines but the pricing seems unbalanced and does not take into consideration those living on fixed-incomes who can be deeply impacted by the rise in drug costs. H.866 directs the Green Mountain Care Board to develop a list of prescription drugs on which the state spends significant funds, and then to collect information (including domestic and foreign price history, R&D costs, patent longevity, clinical trial and acquisition costs) from the manufacturers of these drugs to aid in the Board's understanding of the relationship between the cost of developing these drugs and their price.
H.870 an act relating to telecommunications, addresses the 248a process of Act 250 and specifically how the interests of towns and municipalities are considered when an applicant attempts to obtain a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) for siting a new telecommunication facility. Current law requires the Public Service Board (PSB) to give "substantial deference" to the plans and recommendations of municipalities and regional planning commissions, "unless there is good cause to find otherwise." H.870 addresses the two main terms "substantial deference" and "good cause" in a manner that will be cognizant of the desires of the towns while offering predictability for the applicant. The definitions in the bill proposed by the Department of Public Service are considered to be more favorable to towns than the definitions currently being applied by the Board. The proposed amendments generally do two things: First, for proposed new support structures (towers) of a certain height, the applicant must identify all existing telecom facilities within a 3-mile radius of the proposed site and do a "coverage" and "capacity"analysis/comparison to see if the new structure can co-locate with an existing structure. Second, the applicant is required to demonstrate four elements in order to obtain a finding that a proposed facility cannot reasonably be collocated. In short, the applicant would need to show: (1) co-location would result in a significant reduction in coverage and capacity; (2) co-location would exceed the structural or spatial capacity of the existing facility; (3) the owner of the existing facility will not provide space on commercially reasonable terms; or (4) co-location would cause radio frequency interference with the service. H.870 also expands the projects that may be funded under the Connectivity Initiative to include cellular service, not just broadband projects and it adds additional priorities for funding, such as proposals that upgrade service at underserved public schools. It appropriates $750,000 from the bond premium in the FY17 Capital Budget and a one half percent increase in the Universal Service Fund for the next five years dedicated to the Connectivity Initiative whose charge is to now work toward "universal availability of mobile telecommunications service throughout the State" in addition to the existing goal of broadband speed of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speed. Finally, H.870 requires the USF fund a news and information service for the blind and visually impaired costing $24,000/year, it makes a company ineligible for funding under the High-Cost Program if it has not provided adequate deployment information as requested by the Director for Telecommunications and Connectivity and it calls for the Secretary of Education and the Director for Telecommunications and Connectivity to design a school connectivity grant program and draft a bill which would provide competitive grants to public schools to upgrade their educational IT applications and equipment. House Ways & Means reviewed the Telecom bill that would raise the Universal Service Fund Fee from 2% to 2.5% and raises $1.6M a year for the next 5 years to pay for broadband projects for those who are still unserved or underserved by Internet Service. The Universal Service Fund Fee is only on the telephone portion of a phone bill. So, for example, on a $89.00 mobile phone bill this would be an additional .22 cents a month or $2.64 a year, which seems a small price to pay to follow through on the promise of getting service to folks in Sandgate or Rupert. There may be a bit of controversy because it is, of course, raising some money, but our neighbors and their children need the service. Also, if we want to attract more entrepreneurs and younger folks to Vermont we need to provide telecommunication services where they currently do not exist.
North Bennington water crisis
When I ran for office I did so on a platform of keeping our environment, our citizens and our businesses and workers healthy. Little did I know that right in our back yard there would be a discovery of PFOA, a toxin I had never heard of, in the wells and water supplies in the North Bennington. I realized before hand that we cannot take for granted our water, food and air quality but the crisis in North Bennington has alerted us to the possible vulnerability of our potable water supplies. The response to these elevated concentrations of this chemical by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation has been prompt, thorough and reassuring. While PFOA in our waters has been the singular focus of this response, the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resource Committee is taking a broader review regarding toxins, toxicants and chemicals of high concern. For years now states have been urging our federal government to revise the Toxic Substance Control Act (TOSCA). The FWWR committee is now taking testimony regarding PFOA and the state response, and on aspects of the two bills presently in Congress regarding federal preemption. House bill H.595 an act relating to potable water supplies from surface water is being amended by our Senate to include a provision to establish a working group that will offer recommendations on preventing exposure to toxic chemicals and how to identify the risks of exposure. It would be worthwhile, when considering lawn-care this spring, to ask what chemicals are being placed on your lawns and on the golf courses. Are the chemicals harmful and what exposure levels are safe for you and your family members and pets. Are the toxins in the chemical fertilizers leaching into your well? What sprays are used to kill the growth along the road by your home? Citizens need to know and inquiries need to be made.
Dams on the Connecticut/Deerfield Rivers
TransCanada recently announced that the hydroelectric facilities on the Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers are for sale. The dams under consideration have a plate capacity of 560 Megawatts, compared to Vermont's daily demand of about 1000 MW. There are innumerable aspects of purchase that would need to be considered if Vermont were to move forward with an attempt to acquire those assets. The Governor has appointed a very well qualified 7 person working group to start that process. Some of the most significant considerations include the physical condition of all the facilities and the cost of repairs/maintenance, FERC relicensing and the conditions/costs associated with that process, renewable energy credits, multi-state ownership by a public entity, impacts on water quality and aquatic biota and fish, and all the risks/benefits associated with a predictable renewable energy future. Think what this asset could mean by mid-century and beyond for renewable energy.
The Judiciary Committee passed out a strike-all of S. 241 an act relating to regulation of marijuana with input from Government Operations, Human Services and Transportation. There are two more committee stops that need to happen before this bill comes to the floor for debate. I think that most legislators recognize that Vermont must address public health and safety issues from cannabis use that currently confront the state. So far, the Judiciary strike-all stops short of legalization, but allows the state to prepare for the eventuality that legal cannabis use will come to our region sometime in the future, while also addressing current concerns. Most of the people I have heard from in our district strongly dislike the bill whether they are pro-legalization or against it.
I'm still listening and I will decide how to vote on S.241 after I've heard all the debate and read more. My preliminary thoughts are that this bill should not be rushed and that it needs to be done right. Medical cannabis should be the primary focus and I think people should be allowed to grow at home for medicinal purposes.
Steven Berry is a state representative to the Legislature from the district that includes Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate.
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