Talking Heads: Maura Collins Executive Director, Vermont Housing Finance Agency

11 min read

Increasing Access to Affordable Housing in Rural America

Despite being one of the most idyllic places to live in America, Vermont suffers from a shortage of affordable housing. The legislature and the Vermont Housing Finance Agency are doing all they can to address the problem, but they have two strikes against them already.

Only Wyoming has fewer people than Vermont, so the federal subsidies being funneled into the state are a drop in the bucket. It’s also the fifth smallest state by land area, which creates challenges when affordable housing advocates and conservationists must decide where new housing can go.

Orchestrating this effort is VHFA’s new Executive Director Maura Collins. Collins assumed the top leadership spot in January 2019 when long-time director Sarah Carpenter retired after 20 years. Collins has worked at VHFA since 2002 in many roles, including oversight of homeownership lending, real estate development, asset management and compliance, information technology, human resources, research, communications and political affairs.

Tax Credit Advisor sat down with Collins to learn how VHFA has changed under her leadership and to get some insight into the operations of a small state housing authority.

Tax Credit Advisor: You filled some big shoes when you replaced Sarah Carpenter. What were your goals for 2019?

Maura Collins: This year was more than just the turnover of our executive director. We knew that our chief financial officer and IT director would be retiring. Then two of our multifamily underwriters moved out of the state for personal reasons. My goals were focused on building a strong, visionary and innovative team that would set us up for success over the long-term. I am proud to say we’ve done that. We are fully staffed. Our team has a wide spectrum of experience with technical and analytical aptitude and big picture community development thinking. I am very proud of the high-quality team that we have. As I look towards 2020, we’re embarking on a strategic planning initiative that will help us look out over the next three years and help us leverage our unique offerings to borrowers.

TCA: Have you brought a different leadership style to VHFA?

MC: I’ve been at VHFA for 17 years. I agreed with much of what Sarah did, so in many ways things haven’t changed. Stylistically, I continually promote our mission. It is at the forefront of all my messaging. Our mission statement is printed on the wall of our conference room. I start all staff meetings and board meetings with a ‘mission moment’ that puts a face on the work that we do out in the community and centers us and reminds us of why we do what we do. I’ve also started a weekly video to stay connected with staff. It’s a five- to six-minute video where I talk about VHFA’s work. I have the privilege of traveling across the state and seeing some of our work in action. I bring that back to the folks who may not leave the office as much. I am trying to break down silos and remind people about the important work that we’re all doing and connect them with that mission.

TCA: Media coverage of the affordable housing crisis is centered on the most populated states and urban centers, while little attention is paid to rural America. How would you describe the housing situation in Vermont? 

MC: We’re seeing the same housing shortages that are prevalent on both coasts. It is regional within our state, like it is with most states. In our downtowns, we see a lack of units that is not keeping up with demand. There are various estimates about how many thousands of units are needed statewide and in each region. Half of our renters are cost-burdened and most of the waiting lists for rental assistance are closed. In Burlington, there were eight times as many applications for affordable housing compared to the number of available units. There absolutely is a need to construct more affordable housing, both rental and entry-level homeownership. In some of our rural areas, what we see as a constraint is the quality of housing. There may be an adequate number of units, but some are uninhabitable. Vermont and Maine have the highest proportions of seasonal and vacation homes. Sometimes it may appear that we have enough structures in a community, only to learn that they are not available for Vermonters to live in year-round. Employers constantly tell us that the lack of affordable housing impacts their ability to attract and retain workers. With short-term rentals really taking off, this is an area we’ve been looking at. We’ve studied the impact of the vacation home market for many years, but now I think Vermonters are looking for more policy solutions around short-term rentals, so that we can meet the housing needs of workers and Vermonters who live here.

TCA: What are your biggest obstacles to increasing the supply of affordable housing in Vermont? 

MC: The biggest obstacle is the lack of capital. Because of our small population, we get small-state minimums for federal funding sources that are used to create and preserve affordable housing. The other driving forces that push investing in affordable housing, most notably banks’ Community Reinvestment Act requirements, are less of a motivation in Vermont. We don’t have that many big banks domiciled here. We are constantly trying to navigate the realities of our small scale. Housing developments here are smaller, so we don’t get the economies of scale. VHFA needs to be nimble and creative in leveraging the limited resources we have to increase affordable housing under that reality.

TCA: Who are the biggest employers in Vermont? Are they potential Low Income Housing Tax Credit investors?

MC: The largest employers in Vermont are nonprofits. The top three employers are the University of Vermont, its associated medical center and the state of Vermont. The largest for-profit employer is Global Foundries, which purchased our big IBM plant several years ago. Other notable employers are Keurig, Dr. Pepper and Seventh Generation. Many of our jobs are in tourism, which tend to be smaller employers. We don’t have large Silicon Valley or biotech companies based here that are typical investors or partners in affordable housing projects.

TCA: Who are the largest LIHTC investors in Vermont?

MC: Peoples United Bank, a regional bank based in Connecticut, is the largest LIHTC investor in Vermont. TD Bank, which is a Canadian bank, and Union Bank, which is Vermont-based, are two active tax credit investors. We don’t have any large national banks based here, so investors tend to be smaller, regional banks. The list is far larger than those three, but they are the most active.

TCA: Affordable housing advocates and conservationists are two powerful groups in Vermont that have not always seen eye to eye on how to build more affordable housing. How are you involving these two groups in your policymaking?

MC: There have been policy struggles between the two groups. If you imagine a parcel of land, and the question becomes are we going to conserve it or develop it, you can only do one. In the late 80s, the legislature created by statute an organization called the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB), which has a dual mission of serving conservation and affordable housing efforts. It has brought these two interests together and has been successful and won various awards. It has promoted smart growth models that the rest of the nation has only woken up to more recently. We’ve been able to protect our landscapes—which is so important to Vermonters and the people who vacation here—while also trying to meet the state’s housing needs. At the same time that VHCB was created, the state formed a Housing and Conservation Trust Fund (HCTF) that provides the bulk of the funds used for housing and conservation efforts. The director of VHCB sits on my board and I sit on his board. We not only partner on policy initiatives but on funding affordable housing development.

TCA: Zoning for Great Neighborhoods was created to help Vermont’s towns meet their housing needs. Do you see this program and other efforts to modernize Vermont’s zoning laws as key to your work at VHFA?

MC: Absolutely. We all know that there’s not enough federal resources to meet the housing needs in our state. We do our best to allocate resources at the state level, but if there are not communities set up to welcome housing locally, then those resources and all those efforts fall flat. Part of the cost of homebuilding is due to local zoning and land-use requirements. The Zoning for Great Neighborhoods program identifies zoning adjustments that towns can make to directly improve affordability and availability of homes built in downtown areas. Everything we do in Vermont is underscored by this policy goal of supporting smart growth. While changing the regulations is important, the Zoning for Great Neighborhoods project gives our state the platform to have an open discussion about how we need to continue to be competitive and maintain our population and grow in the 21st century. Our state is not always viewed as accessible and most would say it’s not affordable. A key to overcoming that reality and perception is to ensure that we’re allowing for community development and housing construction in places where it makes sense. Each Vermont community, no matter how rural or urban, needs to be part of the solution if we’re to be successful.

TCA: Given the rising costs of construction, what has the Vermont legislature done (or not done) to provide more public funding to finance affordable housing deals?

MC: Our legislature has done several things to fund affordable housing. In 2018, VHFA issued a $37 million housing bond on behalf of the state. Almost all the proceeds have been awarded and are projected to create 700 new units of affordable housing. That was a huge investment made by the state. Some lawmakers are considering whether Vermont should issue another bond. We’ve had a state affordable housing tax credit program since 2000 that works well with the Federal LIHTC. It’s a five-year tax credit that funds both rental housing and homeownership opportunities, including down payment assistance for first-time homebuyers. While the legislature has done a lot, there’s more that needs to be done.

TCA: Are there any noteworthy changes to your Qualified Allocation Plan application process coming in 2020?  

MC: We did a lot of reformatting. That may not sound exciting, but we went through our QAP line by line to be very clear for new partners and developers what is needed when applying for four percent tax credits versus nine percent tax credits. We also wanted to ensure that VHFA was not imposing too many restrictions on our four percent credits. We’re not using all of our private activity bonds in Vermont and we would love to be doing more four percent deals. VHFA is happy and willing to talk to people, even if they have never developed affordable housing in Vermont before, about what that could look like.

TCA: I interviewed a developer in Atlanta who has embraced modular construction as the wave of the future to help keep housing costs down. What’s your opinion of modular construction? Have you approved any such projects yet?

MC: We approved some modular construction projects and anticipate approving more. Tropical Storm Irene came through in 2011 and flooded many communities here. Several mobile home parks were situated along rivers and many homes were destroyed. Partly in response to that natural disaster, a zero-energy modular product called the Vermod was developed by Vermod Homes. It looks like a typical single-wide manufactured home, but with solar panels and other features that make it zero energy, which means no electric or heating costs. We financed a deal in 2014 that used 14 Vermods in one neighborhood. We’re seeing more interest in modular construction from multifamily developers. They are exploring the option, but we’re hearing that the construction cost savings are not quite there yet. Some of that goes back to the scale of our market. We’re hearing that the quality and durability of modular products are on the rise, which is really important to us in a state where we value permanent affordability. We partnered with several agencies on a study that examines the costs of affordable housing construction. The report is not out yet. Based on the conversations we’ve had with the contractor thus far, I think they will be pushing us to think about next generation solutions for creating more housing with our limited resources. It feels like we’re on the cusp of modular construction having a meaningful impact on the efficiency of the process and hopefully on the costs of producing affordable housing.

TCA: What are your long-term plans for VHFA?

MC: VHFA will be focused on creating better partnerships and offering more conducive environments for developers and investments that lead to the development of more affordable housing in Vermont.

Darryl Hicks is vice president, communications for the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association and a 24-year veteran of associations managed by Dworbell, Inc., the management company of NH&RA.