Opinion – How do we include the missing middle in housing?

There is a severe housing shortage in Vermont for low-income earners and for the missing middle: Those who earn too much to qualify for affordable housing programs and are unable to afford current housing costs. One need only tour our local area to see that new residential construction is limited to large, one-family houses, out of reach for most modest wage earners and young families. This is especially true in Charlotte.

Continuing its “Locked Out” series about the housing crisis in Vermont, in a recently published Seven Days article titled “Raising Homes: It takes a village to grow housing. How Vermont towns are trying to make it happen,” Kate Buckley of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns said, “Everybody is about affordable housing, but you can’t get there unless you set the stage, and the stage is water and sewer.”

I concur and would add small lots. The minimum of five acres for a house in Charlotte’s village districts in addition to lack of wastewater and water does not remotely add up to affordable or middle-income housing.

“Raising Homes” looks at five communities and how they are dealing with the need for affordable housing. One of those towns is Westford. They have been working on a plan to build a community septic system. According to the article, they are one of 19 towns in Vermont working to develop these systems. The article states, “Many of the homes in Westford depend on old underground septic tanks, and the area’s fine clay soils have poor filtration.” Clay soils are very typical in Charlotte.

In Waitsfield, a couple is preparing 10 acres of land for eight building lots which will utilize a community wastewater system. The lots will be small and houses limited to 2,000 square feet. Current zoning prohibits such a project in Charlotte with the exception of utilizing density bonuses available only for subsidized affordable housing.

In this Seven Days article, Tyler Maas, accessory dwelling unit program director for the Vermont State Housing Authority, sees another significant solution to the missing middle of the housing crisis: accessory dwelling units on properties around the state. Garages and sheds are potential candidates for conversion to answer some of this need. In such circumstances it is possible to tap into existing water, wastewater and power to keep costs down compared to starting from scratch.

The Charlotte Planning Commission is in the process of amending the land-use regulations to be compliant with state statute regarding accessory dwelling units. Larry Lewack, town planner, via email said, “The most important effect of these changes is to eliminate the need for development review board review of detached accessory dwelling units (i.e., such projects would no longer be subject to conditional use review), and to eliminate the restriction based on the number of bedrooms. Both are in conflict with current state statute. Also, it sets a regulatory limit for size when the accessory dwelling unit is permitted and built before a primary dwelling on an unimproved lot.”

At a recent Fourth of July picnic, I met a long-time resident of Hinesburg who is a builder. I asked him about all the development going on in their village compared to the lack of development in Charlotte’s village districts. He looked at me, smiled and asked if we’d like some of theirs. As stated in previous articles, I think a far more modest approach to growth is appropriate for Charlotte. To encourage this, the land-use regulations should be amended to reduce the five acres per dwelling unit in the village districts and in other targeted hamlet areas and expand and/or create community wastewater systems and water systems. The Champlain Water District ends at the Charlotte/Shelburne line. Should we consider tapping into this resource?

The current Charlotte Town Plan, under section 1.2 states, “Charlotte continues to support efforts towards the realization of more active village centers and is in the midst of transition as a discussion regarding community water supply and wastewater disposal in these areas. … Like much of the region, it is hampered by a dwindling school population, higher taxes and by land values that make it more difficult to provide affordable and moderately priced housing. In this town plan, we seek to address these key issues through regulatory and non-regulatory means.”

It goes on to state nine land use polices including the following:
1. With an aging population, we will work to attract a younger and more diverse population.

7. The town will encourage through its regulations and policies the development of a more economically active town center with business services to fulfill local needs and moderately priced housing.

9. The town will evaluate the need for more specific zoning districts or overlay districts within the currently defined rural area. These may include but not be limited to areas intended to protect the long-term viability of productive farmland in Charlotte; areas appropriate for low-density, clustered residential development; and areas with significant, limited or irreplaceable natural or scenic resources.

How do we fulfill these policies and what is a reasonable timeline? The planning commission, in conjunction with the non-profit Community Heart and Soul and the formation of a Charlotte Economic Development Committee, as outlined in the town plan and supported by the selectboard, may be the right mix to get us on our way to the future to include the missing middle.

(Peter Joslin is former chair of the Charlotte Planning Commission.)