A family that is living in uncertain or unsafe housing diverts precious energy and resources toward navigating that challenge, energy that could be used to focus on one of their most important goals: supporting their child to be happy and healthy.

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Since 1968, the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development has provided inclusive education and family support to promote the success of children and families. For the past two years, we have been talking about developing housing. One of the questions we keep being asked is why?

The first response is because we can. We own a property that has been a residential site previously, it is connected to town water and sewer infrastructure, and it is less than a mile from the hospital and physician offices, a grocery store, two pharmacies, the high school and other amenities. The second response is because it is our responsibility to explore possible solutions to a local and statewide crisis if we have a resource that can help.

The third reason is that safe, stable housing is a critical part of child development. A family that is living in uncertain or unsafe housing diverts precious energy and resources toward navigating that challenge, energy that could be used to focus on one of their most important goals: supporting their child to be happy and healthy. A child develops in the context of their family and community. Families can thrive in a community that has adequate housing, a diversity of employment opportunities, strong early care and learning programs and schools, robust physical and mental health care and other supportive services, and a healthy overall economy. When examining that list, it becomes clear that housing is the most foundational piece of the puzzle. If there is not enough housing, all the other pieces will eventually crumble.

Currently, there is not enough housing stock, and we are headed for an economic death spiral if we don’t do something about it. There are not fast, easy answers, making it even more imperative to take action as soon as possible.

Vermont has ended up in this situation for many reasons, some of which are self-imposed policies and regulations that have discouraged development and largely supported building out just one part of the housing continuum. The fact is that the entire housing continuum, from deeply subsidized to market-rate, studio to three-plus bedroom, rental to ownership, needs to be robust for us to break out of this box. Consider a recent college graduate who finds a studio (exorbitantly priced in this market) and ends up living there for years because they cannot find a one- or two-bedroom that they can afford, likely because the person living in that apartment cannot find their first home to buy. And the person who might be ready to downsize and sell their home to a first-time home buyer cannot find anything to suit their needs. There is not enough supply to free up the system so that people can move naturally along the continuum, and if we don’t build a diversity of housing, we will continue to recreate the problem. Something must change.

The housing we are considering on the Winston Prouty campus is mixed by income and type, representing options for everyone in our community. One of our organizational values is inclusion: We believe people benefit from participating in an environment where everyone feels they belong, where individual differences and needs are embraced, and where everyone’s uniqueness is celebrated. We often think of diverse housing as “mixed-income,” and while this is certainly one lens to look through, there are many other dimensions of diversity to consider, such as age, family structure and race. Segregating ourselves by income or age does not contribute to a thriving community. We can be expansive in our understanding of what constitutes a diverse neighborhood and start to build a healthier housing ecosystem.

Having an ample supply of affordable places to live fosters a host of economic benefits for communities and serves to heighten civic participation, increase public safety and create a greater sense of community pride. It can fuel community-wide economic growth by bolstering local businesses and the local workforce. This can have a particularly positive effect on those working in child care, services that support society’s most vulnerable populations and other fields where modest wages can impede access to housing.

So why is an early childhood organization exploring housing? It is because we are building for a future where all children and families have what they need to succeed.

Chloe Learey is the executive director of Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro and serves as the steering committee chair of the Vermont Early Childhood Advocacy Alliance, as well as on the boards of the Vermont Community Loan Fund and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media.


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