Gus Seelig, Executive Director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. Photo by Katie Kittell.
by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine For more than three decades, Gustave “Gus” Seelig has quietly had a hand in more than a billion dollars’ worth of socially responsible Vermont development projects, including the conservation of affordable housing complexes, the preservation of historic buildings and the biggest land conservation project of the last century.
Today, in the wake of the disastrous COVID-19 pandemic, federal money is pouring into the state for capital improvement, housing, land conservation and economic development.
As a result, Seelig's agenda is more crowded than ever.
Seelig, 65, was one of the many founders of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board in 1987; since then he's been the organization's one and only executive director.
His record is remarkable. Under his leadership, according to the VHCB, the organization has already invested $370 million in state funding to develop or rehabilitate 13,420 affordable housing units, conserved 764 farms with 167,000 acres and 267,600 acres of natural areas and recreational and forest lands, and restored 74 historic community buildings.
VHCB investments have leveraged $1.7 billion in federal private and local funding.
Among these projects have been the Champion Lands buyout in northern Vermont, the Northgate Apartment Complex in Burlington, the historic Latchis Theatre and Hotel, Lilac Hill Farm and the Brattleboro Food Co-op's grocery-cum-apartments in Brattleboro, and the Green River Reservoir State Park in Lamoille County.
“We make grants and deferred loans to make deals like these happen,” Seelig said. “But for the investments we make, these things don't get built.”
The VHCB is a creature of the Legislature, but it has far exceeded the dreams of its founders, Seelig said.
“For anyone who has worked in the public sector from the time of the Reagan presidency forward, there has been a mantra that I reject, asking how we can and must do more with less,” Seelig said. “After 40 years of that philosophy, COVID-19 laid bare the problem of growing income inequality and the truth that housing is health care. Without a home staying healthy and safe is truly difficult.”
For 1987, the first year of its existence, the Legislature provided VHCB with $3 million. And technically, the supporting funding is money from the state's property transfer tax. But the VHCB, which now employees 37 people, also leverages federal, private and foundation money for its many projects. Some years have been lean. Some years the board has had to fight for its survival. But for the past 15 years, its budget has ranged somewhere between $18 million and $25 million.
This year is different.
The pandemic-driven quarantine has exposed the state's growing homeless problem— there are more than 2,000 homeless households living in motels all over the state — as well as its long-continuing affordable housing shortage. Policymakers are concerned, federal funding is available, and the VHCB is uniquely situated to work on these issues. So the money is flooding in.
“Beginning in 2017 when Governor Scott prosed a housing revenue bond, the yearly budget moved into the $35 million arena,” Seelig said. “Last year it was doubled when the legislature provided $33 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF). This year Governor Scott proposed $20 million in one-time funding for housing through VHCB. The House and Senate each took turns proposing to increase the allocation and then in early May the governor proposed what I call 'a moonshot for housing,' asking the Legislature for a $249 million investment from the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA).”
As this story was being written, the Legislature's Conference Committee on the FY 2022 budget was discussing final funding for the VHCB; the numbers were wobbling somewhere between $120 million and $249 million. Just as I hit deadline, a final figure of $168.85 million — much it from ARPA — was agreed upon.
“This is well beyond what we would have imagined when this session began and $82 million more than was in the budget the Senate passed a couple of weeks ago,” Seelig said. “This is an unexpected moment. It is with great appreciation that we should recognize the joint and truly remarkable commitment and leadership that Governor Phil Scott and the legislative leadership are making at this moment. If President Biden can pass his jobs and infrastructure plan, more federal money could arrive in that legislation as well. As a good friend and colleague said, 'We need to build a bigger boat.' The responsibility to deploy these funds well in worthy endeavors is both awesome and humbling.”
In a state awash with nonprofits, it may seem like an odd idea for one nonprofit to fund affordable housing, save farms for the next generation of farmers, assist with the historic preservation of our downtowns and preserve Vermont's wild natural beauty — all under the same umbrella. But that's the brilliance of its founding statute, 10 V.S.A. § 302:
(a) The dual goals of creating affordable housing for Vermonters, and conserving and protecting Vermont's agricultural land, forestland, historic properties, important natural areas, and recreational lands are of primary importance to the economic vitality and quality of life of the State.
(b) In the best interests of all of its citizens and in order to improve the quality of life for Vermonters and to maintain for the benefit of future generations the essential characteristics of the Vermont countryside, and to support farm, forest, and related enterprises, Vermont should encourage and assist in creating affordable housing and in preserving the State's agricultural land, forestland, historic properties, important natural areas and recreational lands, and in keeping conserved agricultural land in production and affordable for future generations of farmers.
Photo: Gus Seelig speaks at the press conference for Vermont organizations getting $2.3 million from USDA to foster job creation in September 2014. VBM photo.
“At first it seems like a strange idea,” said Darby Bradley, the retired president of the Vermont Land Trust and another founder of the VHCB. “At one level, you think housing cancels open space and open space precludes housing. But where it comes together is when you think, 'What does the community need to be vibrant and strong?' Both housing and open space are essential elements of a livable community, just like job opportunities and good schools and clean water. This was the foundation of the idea – focusing not on land or housing but on communities.”
Seelig's long tenure provides continuity to the idea and the ideals of the organization, Bradley said.
“There were various times when the Legislature wanted to divide the program into two pieces, housing and conservation,” he said. “What Gus and others argued, successfully, was that you'd lose the focus on the community. Gus understood the philosophy behind the original idea, and he has provided continuity as board members and governors and commissioners have changed. It's a tremendous service and it has allowed Vermont to take advantage of tens of millions of dollars over the years for housing and conservation. Gus is the person who led that whole program.”
Seelig said he sees the VHCB as representing “both sides of land use.”
“If you want to conserve the Vermont countryside, then where you want to grow is in our town and village centers,” he said. “So conserving the countryside is one frame. A second frame is that everybody wants to permanently protect the resources the state has invested in. As we've dealt with the aftermath of flooding, we've come to better understand the value of conservation. The more we understand things like climate change, the more that people find we have that a common goal in mind. There are lots of ways that you can look at this mission, but in the context of land use, this is a way to do a lot of public good at once.”
Much of the credit for the VHCB's success goes to the board of directors which runs it, Seelig said.
“We've just been really blessed with really intelligent, thoughtful people who could guide our work over the years and represent the whole state of Vermont in making decisions about where the funding would go,” he said.
The VHCB should be a model for the nation, said Connie Snow, the retired executive director of the Windham and Windsor Land Trust. She started working on the issue of affordable housing at the same time as the VHCB was founded, and her organization has worked hand-in-hand with Seelig on many projects.
“The whole idea of a coalition of housing groups and land trusts is really a national model,” Snow said. “There aren't many places where those two goals have been combined. Livable communities require open space, viable farms and places where people can afford to live. That may not have been the original vision, but over time, it makes more and more sense.”
Affordable housing by itself is an incredibly complex business, Snow said.
“It's constantly changing, with new mandates and new rules,” she said. “Under Gus, the VHCB was so innovative, so nimble in figuring out how best to do this work. It wasn't really just creating affordable housing opportunities, but we embraced all the other goals that went along with it: historic preservation, smart growth, energy efficiency. All those aspects were front and center and Gus was making it all work.”
Seelig's work has inspired many people, including Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt., chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, former chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and chief sponsor and author or co-author of several farm bills).
“Gus Seelig has been a tireless advocate for perpetually affordable housing and the preservation of Vermont’s working landscape,” Leahy said. “His vision was my inspiration when I wrote the legislation that established a federal pilot program in Vermont that provided grants to farmers in exchange for easements that kept their land as working farms. The farmers benefited from the revenue and our working rural landscape was protected from over-development and for future generations to farm. This is one of the ‘born in Vermont’ ideas that I’ve taken to Washington to expand nationwide, and I’m proud to have grown this initiative into a national program that has conserved more than 700 farms in Vermont, and thousands more farms around the country.”
Leahy calls Seelig “a Vermont gem and a national treasure.”
“Gus has been equally as passionate an advocate for affordable housing and programs that support perpetually affordable housing — homes and units that remain affordable forever,” Leahy said. “He has shepherded multiple stakeholders to preserve and restore hundreds of units around Vermont that became affordable housing so the state’s most vulnerable families can have a safe, decent, and affordable place to call home. Many of these are in important downtown locations that assist with the vibrancy of the local community. I am deeply grateful for his partnership and his work.”
Echoing Leahy, Jeanne Morrissey, owner of JAMorrissey Inc, a commercial construction company based in Williston, called Seelig nothing less than “a gift to the state of Vermont.”
“I met Gus over 30 years ago on a cutting edge project, the largest affordable housing complex in the state of Vermont, Northgate in Burlington,” Morrissey said. “Over the last 30 years, JAMorrissey has done a number of different projects which have been at least partially funded with the assistance of the VHCB. They've been a critical partner. And for the past eight years, I've served on the Vermont Housing Finance Agency Board with Gus. Gus has had a far-reaching influence in Vermont, one that's very positive. He has participated, through a multitude of avenues, in the creation of not only an affordable housing landscape but a conservation landscape that we all benefit from. He approaches his work with not just a deep knowledge base but also an authentic and passionate commitment to the mission. He's the real deal. He's an extraordinary person. He's a quiet performer. If I can compare him to a building, he's the foundation, You don't notice it, but you really need it.”
Ted Brady, the executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, has known Seelig since he was a staffer for Leahy. He calls him “my mentor and my friend.”
Photo: Katherine Sims speaks at press conference with Ted Brady, Gus Seelig and Krysta Harden for Vermont organizations getting $2.3 million from USDA to foster job creation in September 2014. VBM photo.
“Gus has been the most calm, thoughtful, intelligent and effective leader in Vermont,” Brady said. “He manages to make his problems somebody else's — but in a good way. Paul Bruhn (the late founder and long-time leader of the Preservation Trust of Vermont) used to give an award he called the Cowbird Award. It's named after a bird that lays its eggs in another bird's nest and makes that bird raise its eggs. And that's what Gus is really good at. He's passionate about land conservation, affordable housing and historic preservation, and making others buy into the importance of these properties — without ever telling you what to do. I've never seen Gus in the Legislature saying, 'Do this or you'll be sorry.' He manages to make you believe in the cause instead of making you afraid to not do what he wants. At almost every event, Gus quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.: 'The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.' Gus lives by that quote.”
Given this high level of praise, it is remarkable that Seelig operates modestly, almost stealthily. He's not comfortable being in the spotlight, and he's happy to stand to one side when the ribbon-cutting photographs are taken. In fact, this story may be the biggest public profile Seelig has had in his 34 years at the helm of the VHCB.
“That's Gus' personality,” said retired lobbyist and attorney Stephen Kimbell. “He's totally self-effacing and interested in progress for the organization — not himself.”
It is an effective strategy.
“Much of the credit doesn't go to what have I done,” Seelig said. “It's what kind of partnerships we are able to create all over the state with people who know their communities' needs really well and can execute a good plan. That's what we're up to. Strategically, I think that that's what's been most effective, as opposed to my having a big public profile.”
The VHCB remains a lasting legacy of Governor Madeleine Kunin, who was governor from 1985 to 1991. Kunin, who among her considerable achievements has just published a well-received book of poetry, said appointing Seelig was “one of the really good appointments I made as governor.”
“I have great admiration for Gus,” Kunin said. “I didn't know what I expected when I appointed him. I knew he was diligent and caring, but he's built an organization that's very strong and very effective. He's modest. He doesn't blow his own horn. Yet his style of leadership works. The beauty of that board is that housing and conservation could be at loggerheads. They could be competing for the same land, the same funding, the same ideas. But instead, they work well together when they can. Gus is familiar with the needs of ordinary people, and he's sympathetic. He's far outdone himself over the years.”
In doing his work, the savvy Seelig leans on a phrase taught to him by one of his mentors, Ben Collins, the head of what was then called the Central Vermont Community Action counsel, now known as Capstone
“He said, 'You don't ever get anything done that will last unless you create a conspiracy of goodwill around it.'” Seelig said. “It doesn't matter what you write in the law, what the regulations say, or how much money you get for something, if the conspiracy of goodwill's not there, it's going to get picked away at. So what we've sought to do has been to find community partners.”
Working for the public good is critical to Seelig's emotional makeup. He was born in Queens and grew up on the Lower East Side of New York. The Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which means "world repair" in Hebrew, has become synonymous with the notion of social action and the pursuit of social justice. The concept ran deep in Seelig's family.
“There's a part of any Jewish tradition that's about making the world a better place,” Seelig said. “And whether it was the poverty that my dad grew up in during the '30s, or my mother's family getting out of Europe as late as they did, there was always a great sense that it was all of our jobs to uphold human dignity and make the world a better place.”
Seelig's father was an organizer for what is now known as the Service Employees International Union. His mother was a Hungarian immigrant whose family left Europe for America in 1939. Given a year, or even a few more months, she might not have gotten here at all.
“And we wouldn't be talking today,” Seelig said.
Seelig said his mother's family, once they arrived in America, became quite Orthodox.
“I'm not quite sure when, but they became very religious when they got here,” Seelig said. “My mom left the path and rejected an arranged marriage, but they were all part of a Hasidic clan. That's another piece of my legacy.”
He has two brothers, one two years younger and one from his father's second marriage who is 13 years younger.
The family moved to the Lower East Side when Seelig was about nine years old. It was a poor neighborhood, but it had its perks.
“I was 15 when I saw Nina Simone, Isaac Hayes and Richie Havens perform at the Filmore East,” he said. “They're probably the very best I ever saw. Richie Havens was headlining, right after Woodstock where he did 'Freedom', but Nina Simone, who I had no knowledge of, was the middle act. Isaac Hayes opened the show. It was quite a night. One of many there.”
Seelig describes himself as both studious and a rule breaker as a kid. He learned a lot from his parents, who were both deeply involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements.
“They both died very young,” Seelig said. “My dad was in an auto accident in 1971. My mom had cancer and died in 1973. I stayed in New York after my mom passed away and took care of my brother for close to two years.”
Then he left New York for Goddard College in Vermont and never looked back.
“I did something called back then CLEP exams, the College Level Examination Program,” Seelig said. “Goddard gave me a couple of years of credit for all the exams I took. They gave me a good deal on financial aid and I've been here ever since. There wasn't a real reason to go back to New York, having lost my parents and all that. And I'd always had an affinity for country living. I'd spent my summers in a camp in upstate New York and a whole bunch of friends I'd gone to camp with also ended up at Goddard. I followed them up here.”
While still at Goddard, Seelig did an internship for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“They had me do some research and write a report about Paul Lawrence, a rogue cop who falsely arrested hundreds of Vermonters, primarily in St. Albans, on drug charges,” Seelig said. “He was ultimately caught framing people. [Gov.] Tom Salmon had a special counsel do an investigation, and I think they ended up pardoning lots of people as a result of that.”
(To finish his education, in 1994 Seelig did a three-week public policy program for state and local leaders at Harvard's JFK School of Government.)
After college, Seelig got a job with the ACLU doing a series of workshops about the police and the public.
“After that ended, I had a cold winter in a Fremont farmhouse with a bunch of friends, living on unemployment until I got a CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act) job. It was with what is now called Capstone. And I worked in Head Start with them for the summer, and then moved to a different job where I was running their fuel assistance and weatherization programs. I worked for Ben Collins, who had been part of the Hoff administration, and he really gave me my master's degree in public policy and program administration. He was a great influence and mentor. I worked for him for about five years with ever-increasing responsibilities and was ultimately deputy director. Then he passed away and I became the director.”
One of the many things that happened while Seelig worked at Capstone was the creation of the Vermont Foodbank.
“Governor Kunin convened a task force on hunger, which ran in the mid-80s,” Seelig said. “And out of that came a recommendation to establish a food bank for Vermont. I got a national grant that became the seed capital to start the Vermont Foodbank.”
Housing was also an early interest.
“I'd been running the weatherization program, and we had begun to do housing repair work through the Community Development Block Grant program,” Seelig said. “And then something happened in Vermont that was pretty earth-shattering.”
Essentially, what happened was that the owner of two subsidized housing developments, one in Essex and another in Moretown, managed to prepay his mortgages and convert his properties: in Essex he converted one to market-rate rentals and doubled the rents; he converted the Moretown building into condominiums. Many families lost their housing, and it exposed the fragile nature of affordable housing.
“This was at a time, beginning after the recession of the early '80s, when there was significant real estate inflation going on in Vermont,” Seelig said. “Seeing the displacement of all these families, there was a real feeling that we needed to look for a better housing policy. And I became aware of the organization of the Burlington Community Land Trust. That's where I heard about the idea of permanent affordability. And that's something I thought we ought to pursue for Central Vermont as well.”
“Permanent affordability” is a legal mechanism for restricting the future sale price of a property so that it may be kept available as affordable housing. It usually comes in the form of a legal instrument administered by land trusts.
“It helps communities by stopping the displacement of their citizens from their homes,” Seelig said. “It utilizes scarce public dollars in a manner that creates long term community assets — the public dollars efficiently benefit multiple generations of Vermonters. In markets where gentrification is the reality, it provides access for families of modest means and diversity for the entire community.”
Seelig was also able to secure a small grant toward organizing what is now Downstreet Housing and Community Development in Barre. The organization combines safe and affordable housing with social justice concerns.
“We also got seed capital to start the Vermont Community Loan Fund,” Seelig said. “And somewhere in that time frame, in the summer of 1986, maybe, a legal aid lawyer named Jim Libby called me and said there were a bunch of guys from the ‘green sneaker crowd’ who wanted to know if we could form a coalition of housing, agriculture and conservation interests.”
Creating the Board
A coalition of affordable housing advocates, conservationists and preservationists was organized and a bill was developed. Kimbell, then a lobbyist, was hired to move it through the Legislature.
“This is 1986,” Seelig said. “So Governor Kunin is running for re-election for the first time. She has (Republican) Peter Smith running against her on the right, and Bernie Sanders ran as an independent on the left. Late in the campaign, she made a public declaration that she liked this idea of housing and conservation, and if she was reelected, she would support legislation to try this idea out. And she was reelected. The coalition lined up sponsors. I think there were something like 25 sponsors in the House and eight in the Senate. The legislation was ready to go on day one. It needed to move through eight committees over the course of the 16-week session, starting in the House Ag committee. Steve did just a masterful job. The leadership and the governor were committed to it, it passed and Governor Kunin immediately put a board together. That summer they advertised for an executive director and I decided to apply. They hired me, and I've been here ever since.”
“I encouraged Gus to apply for the job for several reasons,” Kimbell said. “He was young enough so that he'd be there for a while. He had no political aspirations, which I thought was very important. A job like that could be leveraged into a political career, and he had no aspirations. And it worked out because he stayed there for over 30 years.”
Photo: Gus Seelig, Executive Director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board speaking at the opening of Great River Terrace, a motel converted into transitional housing, in 2019. Photo: Randolph T. Holhut.
Back then the issue was sprawl and how to combat it. A commission studying Vermont's future was holding hearings on the problem around the state.
“The problems of 'spaghetti lot' development to avoid Act 250 was fresh on people's minds, along with this idea of displacement,” Seelig said. “And not just displacement. Back then, working people could still live in communities like Stowe. The real estate inflation hadn't yet made that impossible. But there was also a sense of displacement from the land as more land got posted against hunting and fishing. So this idea of a fund to mitigate the impacts of the real estate market took hold. And people showed up at the public hearings, and just even though we hardly had a track record, they said, 'We love this idea of housing and conservation.'”
The commission made a series of recommendations to Governor Kunin that December, among them a plan to take $20 million from a surplus and give it to the VHCB as seed capital. They also recommended increasing the property transfer tax so there'd be an ongoing way to pay for the program.
“The year that we came into being, Governor Kunin paid the deficit off and the state actually had a surplus,” Seelig said. “And so she proposed to the Legislature that on a one year basis, we get a couple million dollars from that surplus. Now, the next year the surplus grew tremendously. So the second year that we were in existence, we were given $20 million and a permanent funding source.”
The Council on Rural Development had just done a public opinion survey to find out what Vermonters' values were; to no one's great surprise, the number one value in Vermont was a love of the landscape.
“It's always hard to make an argument that conserving land is as urgent a problem as housing,” Seelig said. “There have been a couple times where people said, 'Let's just stop conservation investments.' But that has never been a position the Legislature was willing to take. So I think this coalition of interests found a lot of common ground, but also found that they could do more together than they would have done separately. At least in this state.”
It was hard for Seelig to pick out a few important projects that we could concentrate on for this story.
“It's like asking, 'Who's your favorite kid?' he said. “What's great about this work has been to find community partners with their fingers clearly on the pulse of their community. People who understand what is needed, people who have a fundamental commitment to the mission, people who have a great capability and a vision for what the projects could mean for Vermont, and people who are able to implement those projects. We have been able to create these partnerships all over the state.”
One of the earliest projects was the aforementioned Northgate, a 336-unit complex sitting close to Lake Champlain.
“In the late 1980s it would have been ripe for condominium conversion,” Seelig said. “It was right after that project in Essex had been converted that Northgate came up for grabs. And I would say to you, part of the reason that we got started was a sense that we needed to help save Northgate Apartments.”
The coalition that came together was large and diverse; it consisted of nonprofit agencies, affordable housing pioneers, and politicians — Republicans, Independents, Progressives and Democrats. The Legislature gave $3 million. Then-Mayor Bernie Sanders created a task force. Housing trusts were formed. And the building complex was saved.
“It was supported by the business community through the low income housing tax credit,” Seelig said. “And this was very early in that program. It got significant investment. It was a $20 million purchase in acquisition and rehabilitation back in 1990. If we had to replace Northgate today, we'd spend more than $100 million, if you could even find a place to build 336 apartments. So this policy of permanent affordability has kind of proven itself over and over again.”
Over 20 years ago, the Champion Lands — now called the Kingdom Heritage Lands — was the largest land sale in modern Vermont history as well as another great once-in-a-lifetime coalition story.
The Champion Lands were named after the paper company that had once owned and logged the land.
The Vermont Land Trust was a major player in the sale of the land, which involved thousands of acres across three states. The Vermont portion of 133,000 acres falls into three major units: the Silvio O. Conte National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, the state’s West Mountain Wildlife Management Area, and 85,000 acres that is privately-owned but with public accessibility.
“There was a three state deal, but we were only involved in the Vermont part,” Seelig said. “The deal was like a $25 million proposition, and we put up something like $4.5 million in state funds as part of it. The Vermont Land Trust really did the heavy lifting, raising a ton of other money to make it happen. Two years ago, the Green Mountain Club opened something like 10 miles of hiking trails on that land. The Vermont Association of Snow Travelers continues to operate their snowmobiles across that land.”
Another conservation opportunity came with the Green River Reservoir State Park in Lamoille County.
“This project was led by the Nature Conservancy,” Seelig said. “The property was owned by Morrisville Water and Light. Nobody really managed it. People would camp there all the time. There was a group called the Friends of Green River Reservoir who helped raise money and local support. It took probably 10 years for it to happen, and it's among the most beautiful places to spend a summer day in the state of Vermont, which maybe means anywhere in northern New England. It's the largest amount of undisturbed shoreline anywhere. You don't see camps all along it. And again, it was the Nature Conservancy using their real estate acumen and local people making that happen together.”
Another project Seelig is proud of is being finished up today in St. Johnsbury — the New Ave Apartments.
“St. Johnsbury had had a terrible time,” Seelig said. “There was a key building in the downtown that was once a nice hotel, but it had become a really troubled housing development. An out-of-state owner had purchased it and gotten a Section Eight contract, increased the density and didn't care about the community. The commercial space in the building had been mostly vacant for more than 20 years, maybe longer than that.”
The community came to a consensus that turning the property around was the number one community development priority for all sectors of the community.
“We got a special appropriation with Senator Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) to help with buying it from the owner,” Seelig said. “Now it's under a complete renovation. The local economic development corporation bought the commercial space — about 10,000 square feet. And can you imagine having that much vacant commercial space in the heart of your downtown for all those years? It's just a terrible thing. So they bought that as a condominium. They're fixing that up, and they'll be responsible for leasing it out. So when I talk about a conspiracy of goodwill, it's getting lots of different players to come together to make things work.”
There is an urgency to the work Seelig does. Buildings can be snapped up, farms can be sold to developers, and sometimes he has to work fast.
“I think that's a lesson worth learning,” Seelig said. “A project I regret we didn't do was one in Montpellier years ago. The owner was simply demanding something above appraised value. And maybe if we'd been willing to go 5 percent above appraised value, there'd still be people of modest means able to live in that development. But we lost that apartment complex. It wasn't particularly beautiful or well-built, and the owner hadn't maintained it very well. And he was asking for too much. But he was able to convert it into something that many people of modest means couldn't afford because the market is so tight.”
Conserving farms is another large part of Seelig's work.
“We've worked with almost every segment of the ag industry, both conventional, organic and diversified,” he said. “And one of the things that the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program does is give people the capital to afford to transfer the farm to the next generation. So it's become a really powerful economic development tool. When we first began the program, it was highly controversial. There were farmers who philosophically said, 'I don't want the government to own my development rights.' I can think of one farmer in particular who said he'd never sell them and a decade later, when his son was interested in taking over, he took a different look at the program.”
From growing great local food to helping young entrepreneurs have the opportunity to own their own farm, the program has created “all kinds of good,” Seelig said.
While the VHCB statute doesn't call for a conspiracy of goodwill, Seelig wryly pointed out, it does call for improving the quality of life and the economic vitality of the state. He wanted to make sure that I point out the economic benefits of his work.
Besides the work the VHCB provides for the building trades, “The economic impact of our work is found in dozens of farm transfers, business coaching for farm and food producers, and the economic vitality in our town and village centers,” Seelig said.
He pointed to the preservation of the Latchis Theatre and Hotel in Brattleboro at one end of the scale and Next Stage Arts in Putney and the Lamoille Grange at the other, as arts centers that have become economic drivers.
“Also, our recreation work has supported the growth of Kingdom trails and helped transfer Prospect Mountain in Woodford to a new nonprofit owner to continue a great tradition of cross-country skiing,” Seelig said.
Housing and the Houseless
The sale of million-dollar homes has jumped in Vermont since the wealthy began leaving the cities for the safer and more community-minded countryside. According to the Vermont Housing Finance Authority, the average newly-constructed home built in Vermont last year sold for $415,000.
“Lots of people are coming to Vermont with a fair amount of money and driving up the price of real estate,” Seelig said. “Vermont is the second most popular place in the country to come to. So, like in the mid-1980s, when the VHCB was founded, we have a real estate market that's going up faster than anybody's ability to afford it.”
Right now, Vermont is seeing a COVID-19 migration. Chances are, as other states run out of water, Vermont will see a climate change migration as well. And only the wealthy are able to migrate.
“People say that in 30 or 40 years we'll have the climate of North Carolina,” Seelig said. “So I think we will see climate refugees. And now that the world of work has changed — because people will accept remote work — it will add to the population in Vermont. If we have places with good internet, those places will attract people.”
On the low end of the economic scale, Vermont has an affordable housing problem that's been exacerbated by the pandemic. Even worse, it has a homeless problem that is far from being solved.
For example, every January, at the request of the federal government, the state does a point-in-time count of how many Vermonters are homeless. When the count was done in January of 2020, the number was about 1,200.
“During the pandemic, there have been as many, I'm told, as 2,700 Vermonters who qualified for housing through the General Assistance Program,” Seelig said.
Why did the numbers more than double? Because during lockdown, the homeless became more visible.
Some homeless shelters weren't equipped to run all day and all night. Some couldn't accommodate social distancing. Some were deemed unsafe at full capacity — “We actually helped several shelters pay for new ventilation systems,” Seelig said. Some homeless people were doubling up with family or friends; once the state went into lockdown, these living situations became untenable. There are almost as many reasons for homelessness as there are people who are homeless.
“I think we were continuously under-counting how many Vermonters were homeless,” Seelig said. “When the pandemic exposed how many Vermonters were truly homeless, it was more than double the point-in-time count.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, the VHCB was able to use federal money to improve existing homeless shelters. It also bought motels and converted them to homeless housing.
“That created another 250 beds or apartments,” Seelig said. “There's a new 21-unit facility for an organization that serves battered women up in Chittenden County. We put eight zero-energy modular homes into three different mobile home parks around the state. We built a tiny home. We converted a John Deere dealership across from the high school in Woodstock into nine apartments. So that's some of what we've been up to this past year with the CARES Act.”
Now, that lockdown is ending, the problem will once again become visible. And the solutions all cost money. The cost of construction for new houses has risen dramatically over the years.
“The cost of construction has gone up by a factor of five,” Seelig said. “And nobody's income has gone up by 500% over 30 years. It's gone up, but not that much. So there's a much bigger gap today between what people earn and what it costs to build a home.”
Creating “starter” homes is not a viable business model.
“Nobody today is building starter homes — that 1,000-to-1,200-square-foot ranch — as a business,” Seelig said. “Habitat for Humanity builds them all over the state, but they build seven or eight homes a year. New construction of condominiums is very expensive. And the banks don't want to finance condominium development unless a developer can show 50 percent pre-sales in advance of breaking ground. You can do that in New York, but it's hard to do in Vermont. So we have people driving the value of real estate up. We have an influx of people coming here from other places. We had people lose their jobs in a pandemic. And I think the people who might have lost jobs the most were people who were low-wage workers. All of that has contributed to a far worse problem and a recognition of how deep we were in a hole before.”
Although Seelig seems to be working all the time, he does have a private life. He lives with his wife, Marianne Miller, who is retired after having worked at Head Start for 30 years, in Calais, where he is town moderator. The couple has two daughters. Rachel is a legal aid attorney in Burlington and her younger sister Charlotte is a lighting designer in New York.
“Also, I have been an avid softball player and coach for more than 30 years and coached my team to three men's state championships,” he said. “So yes, I am very competitive.”
Photo: Gus Seelig, Executive Director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. Photo by Katie Kittell.
Seelig's immediate future will involve building conspiracies of goodwill to spend lots of money on vital projects.
“As I'm looking to the next year, we want to do several different things,” he said. “Just to talk about conservation for a moment, we want to continue the work of helping get the next generation into farm ownership by buying development rights. We have a business planning and technical assistance program called the Farm and Forest Viability Program that has been highly effective.”
The state recently got an increase in its Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the VHCB wants to provide a match for that program.
“A match is required to help acquire more land that the public can enjoy that will be good for climate change,” Seelig said. “And we're going to take on the role of water quality service provider for the Lake Memphremagog Basin.”
With housing, the VHCB has two goals.
“One is to continue to look for opportunities to convert whatever kinds of facilities, whether they are hotels or commercial spaces, into housing,” Seelig said. “We want to increase the housing supply in general in the state. Our preference is to do that in a mixed income setting. We don't want to just move people out of motels and into new motels. We'd like to have people integrated into the community, not isolated from it. And I think we want to build on the homeownership program — the permanently affordable housing piece — and do some more of that.”
Seelig also wants to look into improving farm labor housing; another interest is mobile home parks.
“There was a story in The New Yorker a few weeks ago about investment groups — not in Vermont, but in other places — buying up mobile home parks and driving the rents up,” Seelig said. “I think we want to assist in that issue. We also want to work with mobile park ownership groups, nonprofit and co-op-owned, across the state in improving their infrastructure, which is getting older every year. They need help with water, sewer, roads, and that kind of thing. So those are all things that are on our agenda for the coming year. Also, we recently worked with Kingdom Trails to buy a new piece of land, and I think there'll be more trail work we'll be doing in the next year.”
Retirement is certainly not on Seelig's radar right now. Nor is job hunting.
“Well, I don't think anybody else is going to give me a job at my age,” he joked. “So I will likely do this until I retire. I haven't set any kind of time frame for that. I still like my work. I love the people I do it with. And we're still able to do great work and have an impact every year and every day. So you know, I imagine I'll be doing this for another five years.”
Seelig seems content with the knowledge that he has helped to make the world — certainly Vermont's part of the world — a better place.
“I have loved doing this work because of the great people I have been able to do it with and because the notion of housing as a human right is critical to any notion of equity and fairness,” he said. “I have had a magnificent opportunity to appreciate and help steward and conserve the beautiful landscape that is Vermont. It appeals to my hope that each of us can do our best to make a better world.”
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut, the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.