Rep. Seth Bongartz, D-Manchester, introduced a bill Thursday to ban single-family zoning in Vermont. The legislation is a fundamental part of the growing awareness that if our lack of available housing - affordable or otherwise - is to be addressed, the regulatory environment must be lessened.

Mr. Bongartz is to be commended for his efforts. A short time ago, such legislation would have been characterized as contrary to the Vermont ethic. Not only does the proposed bill override local control, it chips away at the state’s reputation for its “separateness.” Vermont has the largest building lot sizes in America, a fact that has resulted in high prices and lack of supply.

When towns mandate large lot sizes for single-family homes it makes it almost impossible for infill development. These regulations can also come with other regulations like height limits, floor-area ratios, minimum parking requirements and minimum setbacks. It just depends on the municipality and its zoning rules. But for every rule, there is a cost, which explains, in part, why developers struggle to build homes that are remotely affordable.

At a minimum, what Mr. Bongartz’s legislation does is to make it legal to build a duplex anywhere a family home is allowed. “If you just think about it, from an environmental perspective - or any other perspective - it makes total sense. One foundation, one driveway, one set of services. And so really you’re getting two houses for one, with no additional environmental impact.”

He’s right. It’s also the only way Vermont can effectively address our housing needs. The Vermont Housing Finance Agency has estimated Vermont will need to build 40,000 new housing units by 2030 to meet our needs. Today, we’re averaging about 400 new homes a year. That is an impossible gulf to bridge using our existing tools.

The move to ban single-family zoning will not, by its lonesome, solve the state’s housing crisis. Act 250 has to be overhauled in a way that makes it conducive to development, and not a tool for the NIMBYs of Vermont, or misguided anti-growth environmentalists. Private/ public housing partnerships must be encouraged, and the state will still need to be generous with its appropriations.

If our shortage of housing is a crisis, and if we know that without fundamental change the crisis will get much worse, then it behooves us to make the needed changes now.

But we also need to act as if the lack of housing is a crisis, and something that interferes with accomplishing other things - like growing the size and talent of our workforce. It’s an issue whose story needs to be told in a way that Vermonters not only understand, but value. It’s doubtful it can be sold - or approved legislatively - in the routine manner of debate in the Legislature.

It’s an easy issue to demagogue. It’s an easy issue to distort. And, as we know, a false narrative spreads faster than a truthful one. Critics will lament the loss of local control. Homeowners may think tougher zoning protects the higher price of their homes. And some are simply opposed to growth at any level and could care less about meeting our housing needs. To them, less is more.

What Mr. Bongartz is proposing is something that requires us to look at Vermont as a whole and to make decisions that benefit all, not a few. He’s correct in his thinking, but he [and his supporters] will need to sell the idea to Vermonters. Those who support him will need to hit the hustings.

By Emerson Lynn

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