MONTPELIER — As communities in Bennington County have learned firsthand, overcoming the state’s housing crunch isn’t as easy as it looks — and one of those roadblocks is access to wastewater infrastructure.
As housing commissioner Josh Hanford and Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore explained during a news briefing on how the state has allocated and spent its $1.05 billion allocation of state-level ARPA funds so far, the state’s sizable investment in housing funds moves faster when, literally and figuratively, there are pipelines in place.
“Of the housing funded to date, most of it is in places that have infrastructure ready to go,” Hanford said, noting the planned Bennington High School redevelopment as an example. “But as we go forward, [there] does need to be wastewater and [drinking] water installed.”
The briefing was part of a Scott Administration effort to get the word out not only on how money has been spent, but to make communities aware of funding opportunities for future improvements. That effort will come to Bennington County on 10 a.m. Monday at the Manchester Community Library.
In Manchester and Arlington, wastewater infrastructure has emerged as a significant hurdle in addressing a long-standing housing shortage worsened by the pandemic.
While the briefing centered on the state’s ARPA progress, Moore noted that ARPA funds are not the only expected source of money for drinking water and wastewater. The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier this year is expected to provide about $500 million to the state for such projects in a low- or no-cost revolving loan fund.
“There’s more money for water and wastewater since we’ve seen the inception of the state-driven program in the ‘60s,” Moore said, adding that the support workload for ANR could be “staggering” in meeting those needs.
According to a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency survey, Vermont is facing about $2 billion worth of wastewater infrastructure projects, Moore said.
According to the report, as of June 30, the state had allocated $4.2 million in ARPA water and wastewater funding, with 43 projects initiated.
Arlington is considering whether to expand access to the Arlington School District’s wastewater plant in order to allow for more housing and commercial development in the town center. Manchester is working to fund a sewer line extension on Main Street that would serve current or future housing needs — and will likely seek a similar extension for similar reasons on Richville Road.
Hanford said his office, part of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, coordinates with the Agency of Natural Resources on large projects — for example, making sure water and sewer lines are installed before new sidewalks are built.
But wastewater projects “tend to have a fairly long runway,” Moore said, given the time and money needed to plan and design that infrastructure. That’s a concern given the federal mandate that the funds must be spent by the end of 2026.
Moore explained that the state has targeted two main needs for the federal wastewater funds: Replacing systems that are reaching the end of their useful life, and building systems for villages whose growth and development is limited by a lack of wastewater treatment.
The state has already allocated $383 million in ARPA funds for housing, Hanford said, and that’s on top of state funds already poured into housing before the pandemic, and independent of private investment. Those public funds will eventually result in 4,000 units of housing, he said. Around 2,800 formerly homeless people have already been provided stable housing, he said.
“Every unit we’re building makes a difference,” he said.
The problem, Hanford said, is that since the 1980s, the state has not kept up with housing demand. And even though the public funding will take a sizable dent out of an estimated 10,000-unit shortage, increasing costs, supply chain issues and workforce shortages are making it harder for private developers to make back their investments in land, permitting, materials and labor.
“When we’ll start to see a difference is when we start to see some availability. Right now there’s no availability, ever,” Hanford said.
The annual report on ARPA spending, which was mandated by state laws allocating the funds, is based on data as of June 30, the end of the previous fiscal year, and does not reflect investments made between then and now, Deputy Secretary of Administration Douglas Farnham said. He said the Scott administration is working on making more of that data available in real time.
Farnham said more than 150 projects spending ARPA dollars have been launched, with more on the way.
The full report on state ARPA spending is 150 pages; the 24-page report discussed Thursday is a condensed version intended to make the data “more accessible and more succinct,” he said. “This is over a billion dollars of funding and the need for transparency here is very high. … it’s important that Vermonters know how this money is moving forward.”