Rachel Batterson: Stand Up for Affordable Housing. Be a “YIMBY!”

This Fair Housing Month commentary is by attorney Rachel Batterson, who directs the Housing Discrimination Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid.

It’s April. As the crocuses open their delicate petals in front of my house, home buying and spring cleaning are in full swing. Many days, it’s raining and a bit raw, but the grass is greener, and I’m reveling in the longer days. It’s also time again to celebrate Fair Housing Month and to think about what kinds of communities we want to build and live in. As Vermont uses federal stimulus money to build affordable housing all around the state, NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) reactions are cropping up like weeds.

So, I’m issuing a challenge. Be a YIMBY. Show up and say, “Yes, I do want affordable housing in my backyard.” Let’s make all of Vermont’s communities welcoming and inclusive for all.

The Fair Housing Act was a central part of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights platform and it faced more opposition than any other part of the Civil Rights Act. In fact, it was only days after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated that Congress finally found the political will to enact it. The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to discriminate against someone in every type of home and in planning and zoning decisions.

The Fair Housing Act is as much about communities as it is about homes. Your home is your base, and it determines nearly everything else about your life: access to fresh food, green spaces, cultural amenities, environmental hazards, and even your social circle. Did you know that you can predict a child’s educational and economic attainment and long-term health by where they grow up?

That’s because, more than fifty years after the Fair Housing Act was enacted, we still segregate our neighborhoods by race and income. And then we put most of the environmental hazards in poor and BIPOC communities and most of the amenities in White, affluent ones. Vermonters of color are subjected to racialized harassment, microaggressions, and over-policing. If you haven’t already, check out the “I Am Vermont Too” Project and the work of Professors Stephanie Seguino and Nancy Brooks.

Vermont makes it harder for people of color to buy homes. Vermont’s 2020 Housing Needs Assessment shows that the rate of Black homeownership in Vermont is significantly lower than White homeownership. Homeownership rates for Black Vermonters are also significantly lower here than in the rest of the nation.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Vermont’s housing crisis. And it’s really bad. Finding a home is the hardest for people who rent. There just aren’t enough apartments. And if you do find one, the rent is as expensive as a mortgage. What do you do if you can’t afford that? NIMBY opposition to below-market rental housing, especially if the housing allows children, has limited or entirely excluded such housing from many of Vermont’s communities. You can wait years on waiting lists to find an affordable home—if you’re lucky. Most of those apartments are in lower income, lower opportunity neighborhoods.

Vermonters say they support affordable housing. But when it comes time to build that housing in their community, they fight it. Affordable housing is great, just not in my backyard. NIMBY opposition makes it expensive to build below market homes. So fewer homes get built and most of them in low-opportunity locations where there’s less opposition. This concentrates poverty. Middle- and upper-income children who grow up in neighborhoods where everyone is just like them aren’t well prepared for life. And low-income children are less prepared for the workforce. That’s bad for Vermont.

So, what do we do? Let’s make sure that every Vermont town, suburb, exurb, and village has a range of housing, appropriate to the scale of the town, affordable to the full range of Vermonters: from retail workers and early childhood educators to teachers and nurses to doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, and others with higher incomes.

Let’s create inclusive, welcoming communities throughout Vermont. Be a YIMBY.