By Sam Jefferson
Community News Service
Two years ago, Mark Pomilio Jr. struggled for seven months to find permanent housing in Waterbury when he came to Vermont to become Revitalizing Waterbury’s economic development director.
“I would like that story not to be the same for others,” Pomilio said during the first meeting on January 25, 2023, of the Waterbury Area Housing Task Force.
The group, created by the Waterbury Select Board last June, had its first-ever meeting on January 25 in person at the Waterbury municipal center and carried online via Zoom as it began to address the scarcity of affordable housing in Waterbury.
Task force members spent most of their first meeting taking a broad look at the housing situation in town and ongoing efforts by officials. They came away with a few potential next steps, including a survey to gauge how long folks stay in short-term housing.
The 10-member group’s first priority is to ensure the availability of safe, decent and affordable housing for all current and future Waterbury residents, said task force member Alyssa Johnson, the select board’s representative in the group. The other is to create new housing in town while balancing the community’s interest in maintaining traditional neighborhoods, respecting the natural environment, and minimizing the need for infrastructure improvements.
Like Pomilio, several members of the task force explained how their motivation to join the group was fueled by their own stress to find housing.
Resident Madeleine Young, one of the task force’s six volunteer members from the public, described her experience when deciding to move. “I was in a rental prior to where I am now, and it was a really terrible experience,” said Young, who works for solar company SunCommon. “It took me about seven months to get out of there and find housing [in Waterbury], which was really stressful.”
Much of this struggle comes from a rapid increase in housing prices over the last two years. In the meeting, Pomilio cited a report from Revitalizing Waterbury from late 2021 that showed the median sale price for a home in Waterbury increased by more than $98,115 from 2019 to 2021. The report pinned the upswing on the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting the crisis made dense cities less attractive and greener, less-dense communities like Waterbury hotspots.
“In a community survey Revitalizing Waterbury did, we found that more than 85% of people think building studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments would meet the most needs of our town’s residents,” Pomilio said.
Task force members spent significant time discussing the Waterbury Planning Commission's ongoing rewrite of the town’s zoning bylaws. Commission vice chair and task force member Kati Gallagher said zoning regulations decide things like how tall a building could be or how close a home can be to the road — important considerations for any new housing. Town officials aim to increase housing density and accommodate more residents through the bylaw revision.
“Right now, we are wrapping up those bylaws for the Waterbury Village area, and now we’re moving on to the bylaws of our designated downtown area in Waterbury,” said Gallagher.
The designated downtown area includes 51 South Main Street, which voters in the Edward Farrar Utility District in October overwhelmingly supported selling to the nonprofit Downstreet Housing & Community Development. Downstreet plans to construct a three-story affordable housing building there with 24 to 26 units beginning in 2024.
Gallagher also told task force members that the planning commission had recently applied for and was awarded a $25,000 grant from the state’s Bylaw Modernization Program.
“This grant will help us hire a consultant to come and communicate with the community what changes we are proposing and what it could look like to increase density in our downtown,” Gallagher said.
Toward the end of the meeting, the task force pivoted toward next steps. Everyone participated in brainstorming. Along with putting out the survey on short-term housing, the group talked about ways to get the Waterbury community involved with its mission.
“One thing that’s special about Waterbury is how there’s already a very lively civic life that participates in many different activities,” said member Eliza Novick-Smith, a Chittenden County deputy state’s attorney and public member of the group. “It’d be great to find ways to work with them.”
The task force will meet monthly, but members didn’t set a date for their next meeting yet. Until a new page is created on the town website, task force meeting agendas and minutes will be posted in the select board section on waterburyvt.com.
Johnson said afterward that the group has not designated a chair or vice chair yet but that several members are interested in the roles to be determined at a future meeting.
The members of the task force are: Alyssa Johnson (select board member), P. Howard “Skip” Flanders (EFUD commissioner), Kati Gallagher (planning commission member), Mark Pomillio Jr. (Revitalizing Waterbury representative); and community members Chris Balzano, Joe Camaratta, Elizabeth Danyew, Lara Lonon, Madeleine Young and Eliza Novick-Smith.
Community News Service is a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting and Documentary Storytelling program.