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by Margaret Blanchard

Like folks flowing from every direction into Montpelier for the Women’s March, a web of visionary/moral/environmental/educational strands is manifesting in Central Vermont around issues of housing, jobs, energy. If cultivated, this weave holds potential for Washington County, at the heart of our state, to become a hub of innovation, a national model of compassionate stewardship.

The visionary strand was created by Dan Jones whose Net Zero team’s design contest produced five innovative plans for affordable housing options, public transportation, sustainable energy sources and green spaces replacing parking lots along the rivers.

One key dimension of the moral strand is represented by a coalition of faith communities led by Debbie Ingram of Vermont Interfaith Action, in concert with Downstreet Housing, whose focus on homelessness has led to proposed legislation to create supportive housing for 368 units, half of which will be newly developed, and half, existing units. The Interfaith Action group defines “affordable housing” as “housing for which the occupants are not paying more than 30 percent of their income for gross housing costs, including utilities.”

Another dimension of this compassionate strand is Montpelier’s designation as a “sanctuary city,” with support from the Central Vermont Refugee Action Network led by Diane Fitch and Peter Thoms to welcome refugees and immigrants to Central Vermont so we can benefit from a more diverse pool of talents and perspectives. The action network is exploring affordable housing and job opportunities here for newcomers.

The educational strand is represented by a variety of sources with potential connections to a jobs-for-housing program: local contractors as mentors for apprentice carpenters, electricians, plumbers, designers; Goddard’s and Community College of Vermont’s Assessment of Prior (or Planned) learning programs which could enable young craft persons and builders to earn college credits; organizations like Vermont Works for Women, Vermont Energy Education Program, Yestermorrow and Habitat for Humanity who educate learners and volunteers in building sustainable housing; plus communal housing plans from other cultures, like designs displayed by Syrian American architect, Mohamed Hafez, at Michael Arnowitt’s refugee relief concert.

Another vital strand represents a variety of potential consumers: single people, professionals, seniors, as well as families large and small. In addition to the HomeShare organization through which seniors and people with disabilities share their space in existing larger homes, a new organization is described by Phil Dodd in The Bridge, the Montpelier Downsizing Group, local seniors looking to move into smaller housing units. Some options discussed include a converted dorm at Vermont College of Fine Arts, renovation upstairs at the TD Bank building, clusters of cottages or tiny houses at various locations, and divisions of larger homes into smaller units. Again, diversity in size, design and cost seems key to our collective survival and growth.

One final vital strand is legislation and funding. If “without vision, the people perish,” it is also true that without support, plans languish. Given current federal uncertainties and our state’s anticipated austerities, we may need to rely more on the City Council and planning department to search for the needed money. One suggestion from John Vogel of Dartmouth is to apply for a housing and jobs grant from the State of Vermont, which has a high credit rating. He cites the Building Homes Together project in Chittenden County as an example. Another option for financing is to form a coalition from the strands of this web to seek private funding from generous, visionary sources. And what about communal funding through our own public state bank? Now may be the time for the innovative cooperative economies we’ve dreamed about.

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