Vermont’s Emergency Housing Crisis: Perhaps it is Time to Take a New Look at the Problem

by Robert Maynard

Vermont Digger ran an article covering the “perfect storm” that is making our problem with affordable housing worse: “The state’s emergency housing program is bearing the fallout from a perfect storm: A growing number of people need emergency placements, the cost of putting them up is on the rise, and people are staying in the temporary housing for longer periods of time.”

The article then goes on to talk about the problem in terms of government programs and money spent on them.  The problem with this approach is that is is a bandaid that does not deal with root causes.  The factors listed as forming that “perfect storm” are inseparably tied to problems with Vermont’s economy.  More people need emergency placement because they are poor and lack economic opportunity.  More on that in a moment.  The second problem is the cost of putting emergency housing.  This is tied to the cost of building in Vermont generally, and is not specific to emergency housing.  I know of many builders who have detailed to me how our regulatory climate has made the cost of building new houses VERY expensive.  The cost of housing in general is high when compared to other rural areas around Vermont.  We create regulatory obstacles that make building new houses expensive and then we create programs to subsidize housing for those who cannot afford it.  Perhaps a little deregulation should enter its way into any discussion of how to deal with the affordable housing problem.  The final problem is the length of time people staying in “temporary” housing.  No surprise here.  By focusing our discussion on government programs as  the solution to such programs, we are ignoring an opportunity based approach to addressing the problems.  Instead, we are creating a permanent underclass mired in dependency.  How do we expect government programs to be temporary when we are using an approach that fosters dependency on government programs?

That these poverty related problems are getting worse in Vermont is not new.  This situation was covered in an article for the old True North Radio site back in 2009:

In a December 13 Burlington Free Press edition of My Turn entitled “Freedom from hunger as a human right” Marissa Parisi, who is the executive director of the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger, raises an interesting question: “This November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report that shows that Vermont is the sixth-hungriest state in the nation, with one in 20 households skipping meals regularly. How can this be, when at the same time a city like Burlington has been called one of the healthiest cities in America?”

Setting aside the erroneous notion expressed in the article that “freedom from hunger” is a right to be guaranteed by the government, this is a good question to examine. The same report notes that, while Vermont comes in 6th when it comes to the problem of hunger, our neighbor New Hampshire comes in 48th out of 50. In other words, New Hampshire is doing a far better job than we here in Vermont are when it comes to addressing the needs of it’s poor. Vermont and New Hampshire have often been referred to as the Twin States because of their similarities. It might make sense for us to examine what New Hampshire is doing right and try to emulate their example.

As pointed out by a December 2nd Valley News article entitled “Food on The Table: Why Twin States Aren’t Identical”:

Food insecurity, not surprisingly, is really just another name for economic insecurity, so differences in income and employment contribute to differences in the ability of households to provide adequate nutrition. But other factors also affect the prevalence of food insecurity, including housing costs and the state tax burden on low-income households.

Looked at from this perspective, there is no mystery at all as to why Vermont would have a higher rate of “food insecurity”. We are a low wage state with a relatively higher poverty rate in comparison to New Hampshire (10.5% vs. 7.6%). In addition to lower wages, we have a higher unemployment rate than New Hampshire (5.9% vs. 4.3% for 2008). According to the Valley New article: “Add in Vermont’s high housing costs and high taxes, and you may have an explanation for why “very low food security” is more common in Vermont than in many other states.

What we have here is “A Tale of Two States”. Vermont has followed the democratic socialist model of high “progressive” taxes and a generous welfare state, while New Hampshire has followed a model closer to the traditional democratic capitalist model of free markets and limited government. What Vermont has sought to accomplish by social programs provided by the state, New Hampshire has achieved by encouraging economic opportunity.

What should concern us most is not that New Hampshire is out-performing us when it comes to caring for the poor, for that has been the case for some time now, but that our ranking relative to the rest of the nation is slipping as well. According to the Valley New article:

Still, the prevalence of food insecurity in Vermont comes as a surprise. Historically, rates have been below the national average, though higher than in New Hampshire, and “very low food security” was near the national average until 2006. Something has changed, and whether the change reflects the disproportionate impact of the recession, an anomalous survey sample or a combination of both is a subject of speculation.

I am not convinced that anything has really changed. One possibility not considered in the article is that the welfare state model being pursued by Vermont is not sustainable. The more you punish achievement and discourage the creation of new wealth, the more wealth creators will flee to greener pastures and the less such activities will take place. In time you end up killing the “goose that lays the golden eggs” and there is less left to support the unstable pyramid of social programs created over the years. This is something that the welfare states of Europe have started to learn and is one that we had better take to heart as well.

It would be a good idea for all Vermonters to read the Ethan Allen Institute’s report “Off the Rails” to get an idea of where our current path is taking us. There is the material on the website of Vermonters for Economic Health to examine as well. Given that New Hampshire is doing a better job of caring for its poor with a more sustainable free market oriented model, it is long past time we stopped making excuses and changed directions.