Pictures of home created by 3rd and 4th graders at Fairfield Center School hang on the walls of Bent Northrop Memorial Library. The program is part of a much larger multi-state effort to make progress on housing.

FRANKLIN COUNTY — To prepare the groundwork needed to solve regional housing challenges, a new federal reserve grant program is getting started in Franklin and Grand Isle counties. 

Starting this past January and extending over the next three years, the grant program – known locally as the Working Communities Challenge’s Northwest Collaborative – is now coordinating with local stakeholders to see what can be done to best tackle regional housing issues.

Further down the road, program stakeholders hope to initiate systemic change by pulling apart what’s behind the state’s housing crisis and eventually offering policy recommendations. 

But first, data is needed. 

Barry Lampke, the project manager for the Northwest initiative, said the group recently put out a request-for-proposal for a housing needs analysis to track trends over the next 20 years.

“There’s a lot of data out there, and we’re hoping that we can find somebody, a contractor that can get us some more recent data and some analysis that really captures how COVID-19 and the pandemic have changed the landscape,” Lampke told the Messenger.

The data will then inform future work and guide next initiatives. 

“We’re really hoping to find some pressure points and opportunities where we can make some change in the short-term as well as the long-term,” Lampke said.

A statewide approach

While Vermont has been facing a lack of housing for decades, the Northwest Collaborative could make a dent in the issue thanks to its involvement in the larger Working Communities Challenge program. The multi-state effort, facilitated by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, is tackling workforce-related problems throughout Vermont.

Just this past year, the bank expanded Vermont’s programs by $2.3 million to create eight total regional teams each dedicated to examining a workforce-related issue, and the Northwest Collaborative team – one of the eight – can expect to see $300,000 over a three-year period to focus primarily on housing. 

Lampke said he is still “working on the plane as it's flying,” but his first steps have been laying the groundwork for larger community collaboration. This past April, he gave a presentation to the Franklin-Grand Isle Community Partnership to inform local nonprofits about the effort. 

The Northwest Collaborative team also includes Franklin and Grand Isle municipalities and economic development groups.

Jessica Savage, the director of community collaboration at the Vermont Council on Rural Development, said such outreach is part of the reason she expects the larger Working Communities Challenge to help provide real progress on housing and related workforce issues.

With more people adding their insights, the teams will have a better chance of understanding the complexities of each issue, and with a dedicated group pushing the initiative forward, each team will have the capacity to coordinate what needs to be done.

“The two big changes are systems-thinking and capacity,” Savage said. “You have to think of capacity for this different work, or it doesn’t happen.”

Savage said the program is also notably taking a longer-term view of the subject than past approaches. Where many initiatives are funded with short-term expectations, she said those involved in the Working Communities Challenge understand that the housing issue will most likely need systemic changes.

And ultimately, those changes – especially when it comes to policy fixes – often take major time and effort to get done. 

With that said, program administrators do expect some changes in the short term. Lampke said that while Vermont needs new homes to help relieve its housing crisis, a shorter-term option could be rehabilitating existing structures or converting single-family dwellings into multiple homes. 

The team can also help businesses better understand how stable housing for all of its workers can help everyone in the larger community.

Housing Stories

While outreach, funding and long-term planning are major aspects of the expected work, Lampke also pointed out the need to communicate the need for housing through storytelling. 

Visitors to Bent Northrop Memorial Library, for example, will be able to see some of these stories on the library’s walls. 

In coordination with Fairfield Center School and Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity’s Community Art Project, the library is featuring the artwork of third and fourth graders that answer the question: “What does Home and the Fairfield community mean to you?”

The 44 pieces of art will be one display throughout the month of May, BNML director Sarah Allerton said.

“I think what is interesting about it, I expected a lot of exterior shots. But we got a lot of pictures of the insides of their homes. It might be a reflection of how kids felt during the pandemic,” Allerton said.

The overall idea, Lampke said, is to show how people’s relationship with their housing affects their larger lives, and how the lack of stable housing can eventually destabilize a community as housing costs chip away at the incomes of even middle-class families.

“The key to [more housing] is visualizing what that may look like and understanding how that housing can really help a community thrive,” Lampke said.

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