'When we know better, we do better:' Maura Collins and the VHFA

Maura Collins, executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency. Photo: Baldwin Photography

by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine Vermont, like much of the nation, is trapped at the vortex of three different scourges: homelessness, drug addiction and mental health problems. They are all tangled and wrapped around each other, and when you add a statewide housing shortage and climate change, they offer a complex social services problem that cannot be easily separated, studied or cured.

One of the people working hard to resolve these issues is Maura Collins, 46, the brilliant, empathetic and compassionate executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

The VHFA has 43 employees and a budget of $6 million a year. It will turn 50 years old in April.

“We’ve been around a long time,” Collins said. “We do mortgages for home buyers, and we offer below-market interest rates. We started that in 1974. In 1977, we started doing mortgages for developers of affordable rental housing. And then years later, when the federal government created a federal tax credit to pay for housing, we started administering that program. So we are the bank that finances the affordable housing in the state.”

Collins is widely respected, both in Vermont and nationally, for her work with both affordable housing and homelessness.

“It’s no secret Vermont faces a significant shortage of housing,” Gov. Phil Scott said. “As my team has worked to secure record investments in housing over the past several years, VHFA has been at the forefront and a crucial partner. Maura Collins’ leadership has been key. She’s committed to the mission, hardworking and dedicated to making Vermont an even better place to live. I’m grateful for her partnership and collaborative approach.”

In April of this year, Scott and State Treasurer Michael Pieciak announced that as part of the “10% in Vermont” program, they were awarding Collins and the VHFA $50 million to try and make a dent in the housing shortage. The money will be used for loans to facilitate the construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing, for rental apartments, for developers who need money to construct things like water and sewer systems and sidewalks in rural areas, and for housing for the unhoused.

The “10% in Vermont” program uses the state’s cash deposits to make secure loans to critical state priorities, such as housing, climate action and social equity.

“Housing is the biggest economic issue in the state,” Pieciak said. “Speaking as state treasurer, if we want our revenues to remain strong and have the money that we need to pay our bills and invest in the future, housing is the most important issue right now.”

The money will be advanced in the form of low-interest loans.

“If developers went out to borrow, maybe they’d be borrowing at 5 or 6 or 7 or 8 percent,” Pieciak said. “But depending on the loan duration, what we’re able to provide to them is a 1.5% to 2% interest rate. So they will build the projects, and they’ll be paying back VHFA, depending on the structure, through grants and monies collected on the properties.”

There’s a human side to housing, however, that transcends economics, Pieciak said.

“There’s a direct correlation between the shortage of housing and the cost of housing and an increase in homelessness,” Pieciak said.

The housing shortage impacts our way of life; it even impacts our health care system, Pieciak said.

“I think it impacts things like medical wait times in hospitals; many hospitals can’t find doctors and nurses because they can’t find housing in the local community,” Pieciak said. “It also impacts the cost of health care, because there are so many traveling nurses coming. Traveling nurses are expensive, but hospitals can’t find permanent nurses due to the lack of permanent housing. So it’s really our top economic issue.”

The VHFA — a creation of the Vermont Legislature — was established in 1974 to finance and promote affordable, safe and decent housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income Vermonters. Since then, it has helped 30,000 homebuyers and their families purchase homes.

In addition, it provided loans and tax credits to approximately 8,800 affordable apartments statewide.

Many agencies work to combat homelessness in Vermont. So why did Scott and Pieciak choose Collins and the VHFA to receive the money?

“I think trust is a word that sort of comes to mind,” Pieciak said. “We trusted them with that kind of investment. We trusted them to make good decisions about projects to invest in. And we also trust them to be able to put together our money with other private money and public money tax credits to leverage it and make the biggest impact in terms of supporting the most amount of new housing units that we can add. They’re a trusted partner, and Maura herself is a trusted partner. When I talked to the governor about this proposal, and asked him to announce it with me, the fact that VHFA and Maura were involved gave him great confidence. And that was pretty much all he needed to hear.”

The $50 million is expected to leverage approximately $145 million in private capital and could potentially leverage another $125 million in state and federal money.

Collins joined VHFA in 2002 and worked at almost every job in the organization before becoming its executive director in January 2019.

Photo: Maura Collins,executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency. Photo: Baldwin Photography

Photo: Maura Collins,executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency. Photo: Baldwin Photography

But long before that, it was the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that turned Collins into a homelessness advocate. Living and working in Boston at the time, she was evacuated from work and hit the streets, desperate to find her husband and go home.

“It was all just very scary,” she said. “I remember seeing people who were homeless, sitting on the sidewalks, and they were just as scared as I was, but they didn’t have someone to find and then to get home. It wasn’t until I got home that the tears started to fall. Home provided respite for me. And I kept thinking about the people I had seen earlier who were homeless, and just wondering where they were going to get their release of emotion.”

Her home at the time was a “crappy shoebox apartment,” she said. “What a 23-year-old would have in Boston. But the emotional connection to it still represented something very important to me, and I don’t think I’ve ever lost that tie to how home is a refuge. I’ve never had housing insecurity. I wasn’t raised in poverty. I don’t have a personal lived experience in those ways. But that day, I definitely formed a connection with my home, and I don’t think I’ve ever lost that.”

In June of this year, the VHFA crossed the $4 billion mark, having issued over $4 billion in bonds loaned out to homebuyers and rental housing developers in fulfillment its mission.

“It means that we have invested $4 billion in affordable housing in Vermont,” Collins said.

When the VHFA issues a bond, it is asking investors to loan it money. VHFA promises to pay it back to them, plus interest. Because most of these bonds are tax-exempt, it means investors won’t have to pay taxes on the interest they earn from buying the bonds. Because they don’t have to pay taxes on the interest they earn, VHFA can pay them a lower interest rate than typical taxable bonds. That lower interest rate gets passed on to VHFA’s customers.

“We’ve gone out to Wall Street for 50 years,” Collins said. “We’ve taken $4 billion of Wall Street’s money, loaned it out to Vermont, gotten that money back and paid back those bondholders. Our investors are major banks, investment firms, mutual fund investment houses and the like.”

The VHFA operates as an independent agency.

Photo: Collins marches at the Pride Parade in 2022 with her family and VHFA staff. Courtesy photo.

Photo: Collins marches at the Pride Parade in 2022 with her family and VHFA staff. Courtesy photo.

“The only connection to the state that we have is that it was the Legislature that created us,” Collins said. “They had to. Not everyone can sell bonds that are tax exempt, you know. That’s a benefit, to not have to pay taxes. So the Legislature created us and the governor gets to appoint most of our board members.”

The National Council of State Housing Agencies is a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization created to help state agencies provide affordable housing to those who need it. Collins is on the board of directors’ executive committee, and its executive director, Stockton Williams, is a fan.

“She’s doing a terrific job in Vermont,” Williams said. “The state of Vermont, like just about every other state, has housing affordability challenges. It’s really everywhere — in the small towns and rural communities as well as in the larger towns and suburbs. Every state is different, of course, but some of the underlying issues that make it so hard for people to afford a decent, affordable place to live are common across states.”

Williams said the recession of 2008 was a big player in creating a shortage in the housing market.

“One of the many consequences of that period was hundreds of thousands of people who had been in the residential construction industry — contractors, homebuilders, you name it — got out of that business,” Williams said. “Because for many years after the subprime mortgage meltdown in the recession, there was no market, no demand. There’s plenty of housing for people who have a lot of money. But if you’re a working person, if you have a lower income, if you’re a senior or kid coming out of school, in most places you’re going to be hard-pressed to afford a place to live. That’s a big challenge in Vermont as well as in other places.”

Collins helped guide federal funding for housing, Williams said.

“In 2021, President Biden’s big COVID recovery bill, the American Rescue Plan Act — really his first big piece of legislation that Congress passed — had more than a trillion dollars of funding for all sorts of things,” Williams said. “One of the big pieces was $350 billion in state and local fiscal relief funding. This was money that was distributed to every state and many larger cities to help them meet any type of fiscal challenge that was at all related to or ensuing from COVID. In the month after that law passed, a number of states including Vermont said, ’We’d like to use some of this funding to address some of our housing challenges.’”

Collins and her team were the first to recognize that the way the U.S. Department of the Treasury wrote the rules for using the ARPA money would make it problematic for housing.

“So Maura worked with senators, representatives, the governor and our organization to advocate with the Treasury Department of the Biden administration and with Congress to get these rules fixed,” Williams said. “It took about a year, but in the summer of 2022, the Treasury Department changed the rules to really optimize them for use for affordable housing. That was significantly due to Maura’s flagging this issue, identifying the problem and working with her congressional delegation and with my organization to deal with it. It made a huge difference in Vermont, and it made a huge difference in a lot of other states as well. Maura deserves a ton of credit for the incredibly positive results that we were able to get when the Treasury Department revised the rules.”

Williams described Collins as “energetic, compassionate, thoughtful and, most of all, courageous.”

“She’s proven herself to be willing to put herself out there on behalf of Vermont housing,” Williams said. “She takes on tough policy problems. There isn’t always a guarantee she’ll succeed, but it doesn’t deter her. When she believes something needs to be done, she tends to find a way to make it happen.”

Collins is widely respected — dare I say beloved? — in the housing community.

Photo: NEFCU press conference is John Dwyer (CEO of NEFCU) and me when they gave us a $3M charitable donation. Courtesy photo.

Photo: NEFCU press conference is John Dwyer (CEO of NEFCU) and Maura Collins when they gave VFHA a $3M charitable donation. Courtesy photo.

“Maura is both a leader and a strategic thinker,” Pieciak said. “And then she’s somebody that you’d like spending time with, somebody that you’d like being around. She’s a personable individual with good energy and a good vision for the future. She’s really one of these folks that you just have unlimited confidence in. She’s a fun person to talk about ideas relative to Vermont — sort of blue-sky thinking.”

Collins’ close friend Becca Balint, Vermont’s representative in Congress, met Collins when Balint was president pro tem of the Vermont Senate. Collins often testified before her.

“There are so many things to like and respect about Maura,” Balint told me.“ She’s a very smart, funny person, and she always does her homework. That is why House members and senators have trusted her as a witness for years in our committees. She’s always prepared. And she’s focused in her testimony, making sure that we get the information that we need.”

Balint and Collins often worked together on housing policy.

“I always really enjoyed working with her,” Balint said. “She can both see the big picture and hold really important details. And she is always willing to have a cup of coffee to talk further about policy. She really loves the work that she does, and it shows. And she wants to make sure that she spends all the time that’s necessary to give people information and answers so that they can be well informed before they weigh in on policy.

“She is a very centered person and very thoughtful,” Balint added. “She can also really crack me up, even in the midst of hard conversations or negotiations. It has been really such a pleasure to get to know her, first as a colleague and then as a friend.”

Housing is a complicated playing field, Balint said.

“There’s no one else that I can think of right now who’s working in this space who knows more about how to get this all financed and done,” she said. “I’m glad Maura’s in the mix, because we need her brilliance and her dedication on this matter. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be easily solved without a real, functioning Congress that is focused on the real work of the people.”

When Balint has a hard time dealing with her Republican colleagues in Washington, she will sometimes calls Collins to commiserate.

“She’ll ground me in why it’s so important that I do this work,” Balint said. “She is someone I absolutely trust.”

Photo: Mayor Miro Weinberger, Burlington Electric, and Partners Announce New Incentives and On-Bill Financing Program. With the mayor are Maura Collins, VHFA, and Darren Springer, BED. Courtesy photo.

Photo: Mayor Miro Weinberger, Burlington Electric, and Partners Announce New Incentives and On-Bill Financing Program. With the mayor are Maura Collins, VHFA, and Darren Springer, BED. Courtesy photo.

One of VHFA’s bigger projects was its collaboration with the Vermont Gas Company to weatherize 120,000 homes. VGC President and CEO Neale Lunderville is another of Collins’ friends and fans. He said VGC began its weatherization project with people from the energy community and quickly understood that the housing community needed to be involved. He called Collins and found an innovator with a fresh perspective.

“She suggested weatherization is a real determinant, because energy bills affect the affordability of housing,” Lunderville said. “And we all had a bit of a light bulb moment. She became part of our group as we collectively brainstormed new ways to work on weatherization. For me, it was really a breakthrough. Thanks to her, I think we’ve found more connections between energy and housing in the last couple of years.”

Collins asks good questions, Lunderville said.

“They shine light on any particular topic,” he said. “That fresh perspective and those sort of really insightful questions are part of her reputation. She’s known for it. She has the mindset of thinking about how we can change and do things better to improve upon how the system works today. We need more leaders like her, who are prepared to challenge the status quo and try new things in order to solve really intractable challenges. Also, she’s funny. And she has a wonderful and warm personality, which is really disarming when you have these challenging issues.”

In the energy field, Collins works with Green Mountain Power and sits on the Vermont Electric Power Co. board with GMP President and CEO Mari McClure, who is another friend and fan.

“Our connection is through tackling the two big challenges in Vermont and, arguably, nationwide,” McClure said. “It’s energy transformation and the housing crisis. We’re leading businesses, we’re leading people and we’re a part of a state that is tackling those two big challenges. We’re leading through a time of incredible transformation. So we share that. And then, of course, there is something every home in the state needs, and that is energy, or electricity.”

As GMP thinks about grid transformation and how to deliver power in an age of climate change, housing plays an ever-larger part in the discussion. Now that VHFA has $50 million to invest in housing, the discussions about decarbonized housing, Powerwall batteries and the electrification of housing have become even more important.

“Energy delivery and housing are pretty high-level, strategy-oriented connections that we make with each other,” McClure said. “Our teams are working closely with hers, and with others in the state, to bring our knowledge and expertise and what programs we have available now across the state — the Powerwall program, the energy storage, the heat pump incentives, the electric vehicle charging — to bring those all to the table so that we’re making sustainable decisions about the future.”

The word that best describes Collins is “empathetic,” McClure said.

“Also, she’s motivated and kind,” McClure said. “And she brings those three qualities to literally every conversation I have with her, whether it’s about the work we’re doing or something personal. There really isn’t anybody I’d rather have leading the housing industry in Vermont. You can’t ask for better qualities in a leader than that.”

Collins is a big believer in Housing First, the philosophy that holds that housing is a basic human right, and people who are homeless first need housing before they need — or can use — other services. For that reason, Collins sits on the board of Pathways Vermont, a federal nonprofit founded in 2009 to implement the first Housing First program in a rural setting.

“The idea that we ask people to stop misusing substances, or start taking mental health meds in order to get into housing is completely backwards,” Collins said. “Instead, we need to offer them housing with no preconditions. We need to give them some time to figure out what their goals are, and then to support them in achieving those. Pathways calls this ’walking alongside’ instead of leading or following.

“And you know what? They have tremendous success letting the individual lead themselves,” she added. “Pathways’ experience is clear that if we take society’s wish list of what we want people to work on and force them to do that, instead of following the individual’s needs, there won’t be long-term success. It can be messy, but the Housing First approach matches a core principle of my faith, which is rooted in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Some of these issues are personal with Collins.

“I have lived with family members who misused substances, and I have loved ones with serious and persistent mental illnesses,” Collins said. “My hardest and most humbling days have been sitting in the emergency department with someone who is suicidal and desperate for help, but there is no safe space for them to get what they need. Nothing brings me to my knees faster than feeling completely unequipped to keep my family safe.

“Yet I know I’m just one of thousands of Vermonters in this position regularly. In my case, these are people who have affordable housing, family support, knowledge of available services, and health insurance to pay for it all. The lack of those things makes everything exponentially harder and can have tragic outcomes.”

No surprise then that Pathways Vermont’s executive director, Hilary Melton, is another Maura Collins fan.

“She’s such a champion of supporting people to have access to the services that they need and the housing that they need,” Melton said. “She’s a big believer in Housing First. We know it’s hard to take care of medical problems or any other problems if you don’t have a roof over your head. Maura’s just a remarkable, inspiring leader. She wakes people up. She’s like effervescence. She lights up a room.”

Collins likes to sum up her work with a quote from a Maya Angelou poem: “We do the best we can until we know better; and when we know better, we do better.”

“My co-workers will tell you that’s my mantra, because I quote it constantly; it’s how I lead our agency,” Collins said. “The first part reminds me to give myself and others grace, because we’re all just doing the best we can. The second part holds us accountable, which is important especially in a quasi-governmental role. We all have a responsibility to continually learn and grow. The last part is the call to action. Once we know better, we must do better.”

 

Early Life

Maura Collins was born in Rochester, New York, although her roots are here in Chittenden County. Most of her extended family lives in Vermont, and many were journalists; she is the niece of veteran investigative reporter Mike Donoghue.

Her mother, Mary Frances Donoghue, and her father, John Collins, were high school sweethearts. John was in the first graduating class of South Burlington High School in 1962, while Mary Frances went to rival Rice Memorial in the same town. John then graduated from Champlain College, before taking a job in upstate New York.

Collins is the youngest of three children; there is a 10-year gap between her and her older brother and sister.

“I was the little afterthought,” she joked.

Her father was an insurance adjuster; her mother stayed home until Collins was in middle school, and then took a job organizing volunteers at the local teaching hospital.

“My mother modeled for me about giving back to the community and working for a nonprofit and all that,” Collins said. “My father modeled for me about making sure you had a way to pay your bills and were financially secure. I learned a lot about business from him. He was a leader in his organization. During my lifetime, he was always a manager and supervisor. I learned a lot about leadership from him.”

In high school, Collins followed her family’s profession and was a journalist; she wrote a weekly column for a local paper.

“I got paid,” she said. “I wrote from the perspective of a high schooler. I wrote about my chemistry class and about an unlikely pairing of a friend group that I formed there. And about really big news events. We had a tragic loss of a student at one point, and I talked about how the high school community was responding. In my columns, the community could read about the trials and tribulations of a 16- to 18-year-old.”

Collins went to the University at Buffalo to study journalism. (She was there at the same time as GMP’s McClure. McClure was a basketball star, and Collins covered her for the school paper. They only became friends after Collins moved to Vermont.)

“I was going to follow in the family footsteps and be a journalist,” Collins said. “I was the managing editor of my college paper, which came out three times a week. Then I studied abroad in Ireland my junior year. And when I came back from that, I was a little burned out of journalism and wanted to do something different. I decided I wanted to work for a nonprofit.”

Her father was quick to point out the downside of nonprofit work.

“He asked, ’What are you going to do?’” Collins said. “And I said, ’I don’t know, I want to serve the world and think about the greater good.’ And he said, ’You don’t know what you want to do, but you do know you don’t want to make a profit doing it.’”

Collins married her college sweetheart; they have three children together. While they remain good friends, Collins said, they are now separated.

 

Enter Affordable Housing

Collins graduated Buffalo on a Sunday. By Thursday she and her husband had moved to Boston. The move would change her life.

“I was done with western New York,” she said. “Rochester and Buffalo are great, but I had had enough. I moved to Boston and got a job working for the Technical Assistance Collaborative, which is a nonprofit. It’s a consulting firm that advises on affordable housing and behavioral health care and managed care.”

The firm’s consultants were brilliant, Collins believed, but they were not skilled at translating their thoughts into writing. Editing them was her job.

“I would read what they were recommending to state and county governments about how the housing programs should work or how the behavioral health programs should work,” Collins said. “And I’d be copy editing it and formatting it for publication. I was learning as I was going. But I was not hired to do the work of affordable housing. I was hired to copy edit.”

Collins soon became interested in the work and had questions about what she was editing.

“I had a very generous boss who would sit after hours with me and let me ask her questions,” Collins said. “I would ask about why she said what she said. I would say, ’The Section 8 program should do this, because I think it’d be better if it did that.’ And we’d have discussions about these things. I learned a lot. Within a year, she had me learning the consulting side of the business.”

One could say affordable housing found her.

“All I can say is, ’I answered a job ad in The Boston Globe for a copy editor at a nonprofit,” Collins said. “That was what I was qualified for, and that was what I was good at. I really just stumbled into it.”

Then came 9/11; the experience turned affordable housing into a passion and a real career for her.

 

Coming to Vermont

It was geography that brought Collins and her husband to Vermont.

“We were in Boston for about three years, and we wanted to think about buying a house,” she said. “We knew we didn’t want to do that in the city. So we drew an eight-hour circle around Rochester, where both our parents were at the time. We wanted to stay within a day’s drive of our parents. And Burlington was in that circle. I had family up here. So we came up to check it out. He liked it as much as I did, so we chose Burlington.”

Her experience in Boston paid off. The VHFA was looking for a research analyst, and Collins had been doing data research in Boston.

“It was similar, but different work,” she said. “I applied for the job and ultimately got it. My first title was research analyst.”

The first thing she did was design a website; it was so successful, it almost put her out of a job.

“It’s called HousingData.org, which is still around and very popular in my world,” Collins said. “You can pull up the housing needs of every community in Vermont and find out the cost of housing, who lives there and where the affordable housing is. Nine months after starting at VHFA, we launched that website.

“It was my first baby, my nine-month gestation of that website. Before the website, people would call me at VHFA and I could tell them what the median home price was or how many affordable housing units we had. Now you just go on a website. Before anyone realized it, I had just put myself out of a job.”

Collins asked the VHFA if she could start attending so-called homeless meetings.

“It’s where the community gets together — the homeless service providers and shelters — and plans for homeless prevention and response,” she said. “That was the type of work I was doing in Boston. I asked if VHFA would send me to these meetings and get involved in homelessness, which we had not previously done a lot of. And they agreed. They thought that was a great idea. So I became our agency’s liaison with the homeless shelters and service agencies in the state.”

 

What Is the VHFA?

The VHFA was created by the state Legislature.

“We’re called a quasi-state agency,” Collins said. “In the 1960s and ’70s, the federal government allowed states to issue bonds that are tax-exempt. You wouldn’t have to pay any taxes on your earnings, which is great. But the federal government only allows people to invest in tax-exempt bonds if those bonds have certain charitable purposes. So, in the 1970s, the state of Vermont created a bunch of organizations to issue these bonds on behalf of these charitable purposes.”

The VHFA was created to provide affordable housing. Another agency created at the same time was the Vermont Economic Development Authority. And the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. was created to fund loans for Vermont’s college students.

“So the Legislature created the bond bank, and our agencies were all created around the same time,” Collins said. “We all originally did the same thing with these bonds, just for different purposes.”

For a first-time home buyer, VHFA is probably behind the low-interest mortgage they might qualify for.

“You would go into a bank or credit union or mortgage company’s office, not ours,” Collins explained. “You would say, ’Here’s my income and here’s the kind of house I want to buy.’ And they would say, ’Oh, you qualify for a VHFA loan.’ By getting a VHFA loan, you have interest rates that may be lower, and you could also get some down payment assistance. There are other benefits to getting a loan, but you do that through one of our participating lenders.”

Just recently (and before the state gave it $50 million), the VHFA raised $30 million for new mortgages.

“We just had a bond sale a few weeks ago,” Collins said. “We needed $30 million to make mortgages, so we sold $30 million of bonds. That means we borrowed $30 million from investors. We turn around with that $30 million and we lend it out. We make mortgages to homebuyers. We make mortgages to developers who have big rental properties.”

VHFA’s own operations are funded by the difference between what it charges borrowers and what it has to pay back to bond investors. Called the “limited spread,” it is regulated by the federal government.

“We live off the spread,” Collins said. “And it’s very limited. We can only charge like 1%. And that’s how we’re completely self-sustaining. We don’t get any appropriations for our operations or anything like that. We’re separate from the government in that way.”

Collins is very proud of the VHFA’s role in putting money where it’s needed most.

“When I became the executive director in 2019, it was clear VHFA was going to have to broaden the partners we worked with and the sources of funding we had for housing,” Collins said. “The need for housing is so great that this is an ’all hands on deck’ situation. So over the past five years, we created a Housing Investment Fund and raised over $15 million from new federal, philanthropic and private sources. That’s money that would not have been spent on housing in Vermont. And we are using that to fill the gaps in housing budgets that have been caused by increased costs of labor, materials and construction delays. There are hundreds of homes that would not have been built but for this money.”

Photo: Bayview Crossing in South Hero, which opened recently for renters aged 55 and up, was awarded federal housing tax credits and a loan by VHFA. Courtesy photo.

Photo: Bayview Crossing in South Hero, which opened recently for renters aged 55 and up, was awarded federal housing tax credits and a loan by VHFA. Courtesy photo.

 

Real Estate in Vermont

What with climate refugees, tourists and city dwellers escaping COVID, it is no secret that Vermont real estate has become skewed towards the wealthy.

Collins estimates that approximately 17% of the homes in Vermont are second, third or fourth homes, unoccupied for much of the time. That means they are owned by people who have little or no connection to the community — they do not volunteer, they do not have their children in the schools, they do not vote on local issues.

“We are the second-highest state for having our homes be vacation homes,” she said. “We’re only behind Maine. it’s always Vermont and Maine that are No. 1 and No. 2.”

All housing is affordable if you earn enough money, Collins said.

“If Elon Musk were to come to Vermont, I don’t think he’d have a problem,” she said. “The problem is the gap between what the incomes are in this state and what the home prices are. That gap is growing and growing every year.”

Many reasons account for this gap, Collins said.

“Our wages are not keeping up with the cost of living,” she said. “I think that we have chronically been under-building homes in the state for decades. We’ve known that for many years.

Vermont struggles to get capital and investment.

“When there is an interest in investing in Vermont, it’s often an individual’s desire to build a big home for themselves,” Collins said. “A lot of banks have obligations under the Community Reinvestment Act to give back to the communities where they do banking. But we don’t have a lot of really big banks that need to do a lot of Community Reinvestment Act lending in our state. We have a lot of midsized regional banks that are really doing well by us. But it doesn’t drive the same amount of investment in our state that you see in big cities. Our rural nature is wonderful, but it does complicate things when you’re trying to bring infrastructure, broadband, roads and bridges, and sewer and water out to every corner of our state.”

Short-term rentals like Airbnb are a factor in the housing shortage, but not as much as some people say, Collins said. And they center around the tourist areas.

“The last I checked, short-term rentals account for only 3% of our housing stock,” Collins said. “Some of those empty vacation homes are now being rented out on an Airbnb platform. We call them short-term rentals now, but some of them are year-round rentals that are converting to short-term rentals.”

A lack of starter homes is currently driving the homeless crisis, Collins asserted.

“If you look at the data, it shows there really isn’t a statistical correlation between a lot of social factors. But there is one between an under-supply of housing and homelessness,” Collins said. “I also think the increase in homelessness more recently  was because a lot of people who had been homeless weren’t counted in our annual counts, because they were couch surfing or living with friends, or just in really precarious situations. But they weren’t able to keep couch surfing during COVID, because that wasn’t safe.”

These people entered the hotel/motel program, and the numbers suddenly grew shocking.

“All of a sudden, we realized what the true magnitude of our homelessness count was, because we finally had good numbers on it,” Collins said. “And you add to that the overdoses that were going off. It makes me think that substance use and misuse is increasing. We know that depression and anxiety is increasing. And I think the pandemic and the related uncertainty in the world has led a lot of people to be much more vulnerable. The acuity of the problems is much higher now than we’ve ever seen before.”

The housing shortage was not caused by COVID, Collins emphasized. In fact, Vermont has funded 1,864 units of housing overall since the pandemic began. Of those, 715 will be online and available to rent by the end of 2023. The remaining are still under construction or renovation. Of these units, 1,594 were new construction and 616 of the 1,864 were set aside for households experiencing homelessness.

Still, much more is needed.

“It’s not like we didn’t see this coming,” Collins said. “I’ve been at VHFA for 21 years. And I’m definitely surprised by the acuity of the needs right now and the severity of the problems. But I’m not surprised that we have a housing shortage, because we’ve had a housing shortage for the last 20 years that I’ve been here.”

Photo: The Safford Commons neighborhood in Woodstock where VHFA awarded funds in March 2023 for development of new owner occupied homes.. Courtesy photo.

Photo: The Safford Commons neighborhood in Woodstock where VHFA awarded funds in March 2023 for development of new owner-occupied homes. Courtesy photo.

 

A Model for Other States

Collins believes that the state’s 10% in Vermont local investment program is an innovative idea that should be tried by other states.

“The state treasurer has about $2 billion in its bank account right now,” Collins said. “They were told by the Legislature back in 2014, ’You should take 10% of the state’s daily balances in the bank account and lend it out locally and do good to help the economics of Vermont.’ So since 2014 they’ve invested in Vermont.”

The big difference is that now the state’s deposits have grown substantially.

“They’re sitting on all this ARPA money and tax collections and other stuff,” Collins said. “The treasurer’s office has loaned us this $50 million, and we have to pay it back within 20 years. Different amounts of money are due back at different times. Some is due back within five years, some within 10 years, some within 15 or 20 years. We have to pay it back with 2% interest.”

This is similar to the bonds that VHFA usually sells.

“When we sell bonds, we don’t get money at 2% interest,” Collins said. “It’s higher than that. So this is more affordable. It means we’re going to be able to make loans at lower rates to borrowers. But it doesn’t mean that we’re going to be able to solve both our housing and homelessness problems with this investment.”

And remember, the $50 million is a loan that the VHFA has to pay back.

“We can’t lose a penny of it,” Collins said. “VHFA has had to promise that the state will be made whole of the $50 million. So we are taking on the risk of not losing any of this money in bad investments. We feel like we can do that with confidence, because we have a 50-year track record of making good loans and getting paid back and doing good work.”

The first use of the funding will be to fill gaps in affordable-housing developments that have seen cost increases and are waiting on a final award of funding to fill the gap.

“Then they can hopefully start construction in the spring/summer,” Collins said. “Twenty-eight percent of the funding we applied for is for this use, and we expect all of that to be awarded by this spring. Money for the infrastructure needed for new for-sale neighborhoods or in manufactured housing communities will likely also be awarded by next spring, and that’s another 20% of the funding. The treasurer gave us three years to spend the money, but I could see half of that being awarded within the next six months.”

There have been no lack of applicants for the new money.

“We had a pipeline of tens of millions of dollars already that we knew people needed money for,” Collins said. “I think we might have 30% to 40% of the money committed and earmarked by the end of this year.

“There’s a lot of housing activity going on right now, and interest rates are very high. If we can offer a construction loan or a permanent mortgage that is closer to 3% or 4% versus 8%, then there’s going to be a lot of demand for that. Rents will be lower as a result of this program.”

 

The Future of Vermont

It is hard to talk about affordable housing without talking about the NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) factor. Single individuals, communities and whole towns have banded together to fight new construction.

“It seems like some people want to limit Vermont’s population to what it is now — just under 650,000 people — and keep it that way forever,” Collins said. “Since we can’t close our borders, the only way to stop our growth is to limit who can afford to live here.”

The VHFA supports the creation of local housing committees dominated by local residents to assess the housing needs and desires of their own communities.

“I often joke — although it may be a little inappropriate — that most towns in Vermont have a cemetery commission. But there are only about 18 to 20 housing commissions in the state,” Collins said. “Clearly, we care more about where we live when we’re 6 feet underground then where we’re living right now and where the future of our community is going to live.”

This is where the conversation gets interesting: What should the future of Vermont look like? Do we want to build, and if so, where — or where not?

“I think our topography and our land-use patterns are part of this discussion,” Collins said. “We have ridge lines and slopes that make some of Vermont not suitable for housing development. We have national forests. We have conserved land. We have agricultural land. We don’t want housing absolutely everywhere.”

Yet Vermont has historic settlement patterns, which we call downtowns.

“We like downtown development,” Collins said. “That’s what’s best for the environment. That’s what’s best for communities and their own vibrancy. And yet it means that some communities feel overburdened by their need to provide housing. ’Why does it all have to happen downtown in this village center? Why can’t it happen elsewhere?’ That’s NIMBYism. But we really like to try to drive a lot of our housing development to areas planned for growth.”

Limited sewer and water capacity are big factors in building housing.

Photo: Groundbreaking is Gus Seelig (VHCB Exec Director), Kim Fitzgerald (Cathedral Square Exec Director), Gov, Mayor Weinberger, and me at Juniper House in Burlington. Courtesy photo.

Photo: Groundbreaking with Gus Seelig (VHCB Exec Director), Kim Fitzgerald (Cathedral Square Exec Director), Governor Scott, Mayor Weinberger, and Maura Collins at Juniper House in Burlington. Courtesy photo.

“Housing is more affordable when it can be served by community sewer and water,” Collins said. “Septic systems are expensive, and they can only serve so many homes at a time. So we’re limited.”

Construction is limited by the receptiveness of communities.

“I live in a very dense area in Essex Junction right near the Five Corners,” Collins said. “My home is one-eighth of an acre. It’s very small. And yet in my neighborhood, there are folks who get concerned about the growing density in Essex Junction, and how we don’t want to be like Winooski or Burlington. There’s real pushback to a changing look of communities, even where we want growth to happen.”

These are tough problems.

“What would it look like if we were at a population of 700,000, or 800,000?” she asked. “Sometimes people think that if we don’t build it, they won’t come.”

Changing living patterns have put pressure on housing.

“People look at the population of Vermont and say it’s not growing that much, so why do we need so many more homes if the number of people isn’t going up precipitously?” Collins said. “What they don’t realize is that our household sizes are getting smaller. In the 1950s and 1960s, especially in Irish Catholic families like mine, there were lots of kids. You could have six to eight people sharing a very modest home. That was not out of the norm.

“But as time has gone on, our household sizes have shrunk. We get married later in life, so we stay single for longer. We divorce at higher rates, so we have people now taking up two homes. At some point, my three kids are going to move out and we’re going to need four homes for what is currently one. That means we need more housing, even though we didn’t grow any people. It’s important to look at our household patterns and our expectations of living as well as everything else.”

Vermont needs to start having some tough discussions, Collins said.

“We need to have, as communities, discussions about what we want Vermont to look like,” Collins said. “I think what gets missed is that if there 650,000 Vermonters 20 years from now, they’re not the same 650,000 people who are here today. They will be the people who can afford to live here. And if we limit the supply of housing, the prices will just go higher. It will become more out of reach for our farmers, for working Vermonters, for the folks who are so important to our communities.”

Vermont could end up looking like a wealthy tourist town like Taos or Aspen or Jackson Hole, where recreational amenities draw in people of means who do not actually live there full time.

“I worry that the working Vermonters who have called the Green Mountain State home for generations,” Collins said, “may not still be able to call it home if we can’t find smart ways to thoughtfully grow in the right communities and serve the future of our state.”

State Treasurer Pieciak, meanwhile, believes there needs to be a balance.

“What makes us special as a state is our sense of community,” Pieciak said. “That’s easier to maintain when you’re smaller, but you can still maintain it as you grow. And Vermont has grown over the last 20 or 40 years. We didn’t always have 650,000 people. I think our challenge is growing while maintaining that sense of community and connection to each other and our land and our neighborhoods and neighbors.

“But we need to balance that against the critical mass that it takes to make living in Vermont. What makes living in a rural place easier? The more people that pay taxes to build our roads and our schools, and to support the amenities — whether a grocery store or a general store — that are in our communities.”

Vermont needs a critical mass, Pieciak said.

“We need to also be mindful that we’re getting older,” Pieciak said. “The demographic of our workforce, of people particularly between the ages of 55 and 65, is one of our biggest cohorts. We’re going to have to replace them if we all expect to have the same quality of life. These are nurses and doctors and teachers and firefighters and restaurant employees and retail employees. We have to balance those two things. It’s probably slow and steady growth that we need in Vermont.”

In terms of building, Collins said she worries that people think, in the words of Joni Mitchell, she wants to “pave paradise and put up a parking lot.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said. “I truly believe in Vermont’s smart-growth principles. I don’t want to see housing on every cornfield that Vermont has. Yet if we’re going to be an economically vibrant state in the future, we do need to prepare ourselves for some of our communities looking a little different, and that we need to build differently.”

Vermonters already know about the dangers of building on floodplains.

“It’s no use fighting with the rivers about where they’re going to go,” Collins said. “So we’ve lost that battle. We can’t fight the mountains about how steep those slopes are. We know you can’t build housing there. And it’s not affordable to put water and sewer on every corner of Vermont. We have so much natural limitation of where we can build housing.”

Still, Collins prioritizes the construction of new, affordable houses.

“We have so much natural limitation. But if we can find a spot adjacent to an area designated for growth that has water and sewer, then yes, I think that we need to seriously consider more housing there to help Vermont thrive in the next century,” she said. “Otherwise, we’re going to really limit the opportunities for a diversity of folks to call our state home.”

There is no simple way to solve Vermont’s housing problem, Collins said.

“If there were one single simple answer, we would have addressed it by now,” she said. “There are a lot of smart people working on this. And it’s not as simple as it may seem. When we keep home prices ridiculously high, it’s a polite way of limiting who can call Vermont home. I fear Vermont will remain among the oldest and whitest states in the nation, and that hurts everyone. We must find a way to embrace smart growth that allows us to grow in the right places and in the right ways so we can meet the needs of the future.”

 

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 Publishers. She is married to Randy Holhut, the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.

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