Patrick Leahy: Housing is not a political issue, it’s a moral issue
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Last week President Obama’s chief housing officer, Secretary Julián Castro of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, accepted my invitation to visit Vermont. In his first visit to the Green Mountain State since he took office in 2014, he remarked how surprised he was “to see so much green.”
In fact our uniquely rural nature is why I had invited him to our state and why I had gathered a panel of Vermont’s housing partners and homelessness advocates to discuss the array of successes and challenges of achieving affordable housing in our state and rural America. Vermont is a state where affordable housing is not a slogan, but a real priority.
Vermont’s rural nature means that for many the greatest challenge is isolation. Housing costs continue to rise, and for years Vermont has maintained a 1 percent vacancy rate. Our rural communities remain challenged with meeting the complex needs of our most vulnerable citizens, but we continue to make significant gains. For instance, with the help of federal HUD investments, Vermont saw a 25 percent decrease in chronic homelessness last year. This is an impressive achievement, and a result of ingenuity and collaboration at every level.
Yet even with these gains, we will not be able to meet our goals of eradicating homelessness – just as we will not overcome inequality, advance education or build a stronger economy – unless we invest in housing.
No one should ever be without help, without hope, or without a home. - Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
In Vermont, we know the value of Housing First, and our ability to build stronger depends on our ability to first build together. The strength of our rural network results in a collective mission of servicing shelters, developing downtowns and supporting self-sufficiency. No one should ever be without help, without hope, or without a home.
We know that the challenge of affordability, and the cost burdens that keep our families up at night, are not limited to only the lowest-income households. These challenges are steadily inching up the income scale and reaching the middle class.
And there is no magic bullet when it comes to solving these challenges. We need to treat the chronic symptoms of an underemployed workforce, tight housing market and tepid wage growth with a host of remedies in affordable housing. We need direct housing cost help to these families, we need services, and we need more housing production.
That is why last week I was proud to announce with Secretary Castro that Vermont would be the second state in the nation to receive a new $3 million investment in affordable housing from the National Housing Trust Fund. It’s why I was glad to travel with the secretary to Burlington’s Old North End to welcome 40 families to their new homes at the Bright Street Cooperative. It is why I am an outspoken advocate for federal programs that support housing and homeownership.
I am immensely proud of our statewide unity and resiliency. And I am grateful for those providers who populate communities far away from where we gathered last week, for whom helping to build a home is a part of helping to build the community.
It is often said that investing in housing is investing in our economy and our future. I believe, and even more so after the testimony heard last week, that investing in affordable housing is also investing in our friends, our families and our neighbors. It is investing in a future where access to housing is a universal human right, especially where, as the secretary noted, the grass is truly greener.