On Wednesday, April 17, Vermont architect Kaziah Haviland gave the third talk in a spring lecture series hosted by design/build school Yestermorrow about the affordable housing crisis. Her talk addressed what individuals and families can do to change the Mad River Valley housing landscape.  





Most of these small-scale interventions included the development of individual housing units on privately owned land. An Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU), for example, is a smaller secondary home built on the same lot as the primary residence – like a small stand-alone unit, or an apartment above a garage. Duplexes, as another example, are single structures separated into two units.

While it might not seem like singular units built by individual property owners could make much of an impact on the housing crisis, Haviland suggested otherwise. She said that typically, it takes about three years for a housing developer to design and build a structure with 25-30 affordable units, while that same number of units could be achieved if just nine households in The Valley built a unit and rented it out affordably each year.

“Affordable housing” is generally defined as housing on which the occupant is spending no more than 30 percent of their gross income for rent and utilities, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Haviland is the Village Trust Program director at the Montpelier-based Vermont Council on Rural Development. Previously, she managed the design and construction of multi-family affordable housing units at Downstreet Housing and Community Development. Additionally, she served as the coordinator of the Mad River Valley Housing Coalition until that organization disbanded.

Other project options for landowners in Haviland’s talk were multi-family homes - either separate housing units within one structure or several buildings within one complex, and home-share programs in which unrelated people share a home, facilitated by programs like HomeShare Vermont.

If property owners are interested in building a unit, Haviland said they should talk with their local zoning administrators about potential project ideas. “They are fantastic people,” she said, “and they are full of so much knowledge.” Next steps include assessing water, wastewater and parking capacities, determining the buildable area, designing the project, and securing funding and permits. A municipal application for a Planned Unit Development (PUD) – a zoning device that essentially redefines the land uses allowed in a given area – might also be of interest to some landowners.




Haviland spoke to some of the difficulties with developing affordable housing in rural areas, including a lack of public infrastructure; the presence of wetlands, steep slopes, and agricultural soils; public concern for sprawl and habitat fragmentation; and a town’s desire to maintain traditional settlement patterns and aesthetics.

With towns prioritizing open and conserved land – especially via zoning regulations, “I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing,” Haviland said. “There’s often a knee-jerk reaction, thinking, either it’s development or it’s conservation. But they can work hand-in-hand, very well together, if you do it in a very smart way.” She said that municipalities are beginning to recognize a need for more balance, revisiting and rewriting their zoning bylaws.

Haviland also pointed to some of the financial obstacles that property owners face in constructing housing units, including the high cost of building materials, high cost of labor – not necessarily a problem, as Haviland said she is “pro living wage,” the inability to get a construction loan from a bank, and property tax increases that come after additional units are built.

She said that towns and communities could mitigate some of these challenges by creating a housing trust that provides grants to builders – offsetting construction costs for property owners, and establishing private or public-private partnerships that administer construction loans on a local level. Municipalities could create grace periods for paying property tax increases, and property owners could look into loan programs that consider future income, like the Fanny Mae HomeReady program. 

In order to demystify the whole process and help it along, she said that communities could partner with non-profits, forming a housing committee that would essentially provide consultation around permitting, project feasibility and other information.

All of these suggestions aside, Haviland said that the cost of building a 2,000 square foot single-family home has been increasing in recent years, at the same time that the average median income for a family of four is plummeting. She pulled up a line graph demonstrating these national trends. “You can see how painful this is getting, and they continue to grow apart,” she said.

Talks in the lecture series “Building Affordability” take place on Wednesdays from 6:30 to 8, through May 1. Each presentation tackles the topic of housing affordability and ‘missing middle’ housing – referring to the lack of multi-family and clustered housing types in the United States.