From the Director, Spring 2024: Housing: What can towns, and the region, really do about creating more?

Chris Campany

We’re deep in a housing crisis that was decades in the making. What can towns, and the Windham Regional Commission, do about it? Towns can actually take concrete steps to create favorable conditions for more housing. Regions can help with higher-level planning and support of municipal efforts, but we don’t have the authority to take the actions that towns are empowered to take like planning and building infrastructure, streamlining zoning and permitting, and even providing access to land. To that end it's often supporting the work of towns where we can make the most difference.

First, some context. According to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) in a blog post from April 4th,“The median sales price of primary homes sold in Vermont reached $325,000 in 2023, increasing by 5% during that period compared to the prior year, according to recent Vermont Property Transfer Tax (PTT) records… In tandem with increasing prices, the annual number of primary homes sold has decreased each year since 2020. 5,759 homes were sold in 2023, more than 2,000 fewer than the prior year and 3,000 fewer than each year from 2019-2021. The number of homes sold in 2023 is the lowest annual total in Vermont since 2012 when the housing market was still dealing with the impacts of the Great Recession…The median price of new homes has increased dramatically in the state since 2019, increasing from $365,569 up to $616,500 in 2023. This represents a 68% increase in the cost of a new home since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.” In its 2023 Vermont Housing Investment Fund Annual Report, VHFA stated Vermont’s per unit cost of multi-family rental development has increased 76% since 2018 and is now around $500,000. You can find this information and more at

Brattleboro and Londonderry both completed housing studies recently. The former found current demand exceeds 500 units, and the latter found current demand for more than 300 units. We’re awaiting region by region information from VHFA but suffice it to say that current aggregate demand - not future - in the 27 towns of the Windham Region is no doubt in the thousands. To develop housing in the numbers needed and at an economy of scale that reduces costs per unit, the future lies in multifamily housing. The cost of a standalone single family detached home on a subdivision lot or out in the woods, what most people probably visualize as local housing for local Vermonters, is out of financial reach for the majority of our neighbors. In the absence of a considerable rise in incomes for Vermonters, a collapse in construction prices, and a collapse in land prices, we need to think about the development of well-sited multi-family housing in walkable and bikeable neighborhoods with access to goods and services and, ideally, work.

What can the Windham Regional Commission do? We own no assets, nor do we have the ability to tax to raise public dollars to invest in the infrastructure (water, wastewater, sidewalks, roads, public services, etc.) necessary to support housing at scale, meaning housing developed in sufficient numbers to achieve economies of scale in materials, construction, and paying for the related support infrastructure. Our role in permitting is indirect - our plans only come directly into play through Act 250 when District Environmental Commissions take regional plan policy under advisement (i.e., our regional plan policies do not determine Act 250 permit outcomes). We can identify at a high level where infrastructure exists to support the development of housing in the numbers needed, areas that are well-suited to additional housing if the corresponding infrastructure existed, areas that are less likely to be at risk of flooding and other hazards, and where in the region compact settlement expansion makes the most sense. Where we can make the most difference is supporting towns in their work.

What can towns do? It’s not necessarily easy, but it is pretty straightforward and absolutely essential. We can help.

  • Recognize the need for housing and commit to planning for housing. Creating conditions for local housing for local residents is a local responsibility. This must be a priority of both the selectboard and the planning commission, and for it to be their priority, it must be a priority of the residents of the town. It is at the town level where land use and infrastructure decisions are made. We can help explain the Vermont land use planning context and why decision-making at the local level is essential.
  • Recognize the current and future housing realities. While this can certainly include single-family detached housing, as noted above, unless there’s a dramatic positive change in Vermonters’ incomes and a dramatic decrease in land and construction costs, the future of housing is multifamily. The WRC can work with the planning commission and selectboard to think through what housing solutions could make the most sense for your town. This may lend itself to…
  • Intermunicipal housing conversations. It could be that the best housing solution for the residents of your town will ultimately be found in a neighboring town. It can be very difficult to do some things on a town by town by town basis. Housing is one of those. Some towns are better suited for housing than others because existing settlement patterns lend themselves to new housing and neighborhood development, land is available for compact settlement that is not likely at risk of flooding, there's existing infrastructure and the ability to expand that infrastructure, and other very practical considerations. The WRC can support these conversations. We’re piloting a 4-town housing planning discussion in the northwest corner of the region among Jamaica, Londonderry, Weston, and Winhall with the assistance of UMass-Amherst and the American Institute of Architects Community by Design program. The outcome of the discussion won’t be binding on any town; the goal is to think beyond town boundaries. If the outcome is ultimately useful, we’ll expand this approach to other clusters of towns in the region. In some cases, it could make sense to think beyond state lines, in which case we’d engage with our counterparts in NH or MA to work with their respective towns.
  • Build infrastructure. Housing at scale cannot be built in the absence of public water and wastewater. Developers can build their own wastewater and water systems, but that drives up costs even higher, making housing affordability even more unattainable. The WRC has gained experience working with towns designing and preparing to build community wastewater systems intended primarily to support existing uses within villages. We can help you think through the infrastructure planning and development process, and we can support that work if the town chooses to go forward.
  • Affect Housing Development Cost Factors. Towns can’t directly affect major housing costs like labor and materials, but it is possible for towns to provide land. Some towns already own land that could be well-suited to housing development, and others may want to create a land bank or other land purchase mechanisms to incentivize housing development. The WRC can work with towns to explore what options might make sense. And while towns can’t set interest rates, they can establish tools such as revolving loan funds to lend money at more favorable rates than what is commercially available. The amount of capital needed to establish the fund to support significant new housing would likely be beyond the capacity of most of our towns, but smaller amounts could be made available to make improvements to retain existing housing or create new apartments within existing buildings, or for pre-development costs associated with larger projects. As with any lending there is a risk of loss, but the WRC could help towns explore what possibilities might make sense.
  • Make permitting easy. Towns that have zoning and permitting can make the regulatory pathway clear, predictable, and quick. The WRC has been working with towns on updating their zoning for housing, and we can advise on permitting processes.
Last Updated: 24 April 2024
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