Zoning Atlases Across the Map: Vermont

The FWD #G25 • 1,127 Words

HousingForward Virginia isn’t the only one working on a zoning atlas. Organizations and institutions across the nation are diligently analyzing and mapping zoning ordinances to better visualize and understand how zoning is impacting housing development and affordability in their communities.

We want to highlight the diverse ways in which other state atlas teams are hoping to use their atlases and their motivations for taking on such a massive project. We hope that this inspires Virginians to think of the ways in which they can utilize the Virginia Zoning Atlas. We’re going to head up north first to the Green Mountain State—Vermont!

Yoshi Bird, Vermont Zoning Atlas

Photo by Cheryl Carmi, UVM Foundation

Tell us about yourself and the organization you work for.

My name is Yoshi Bird, and I am a third-year PhD student in Complex Systems and Data Science at the University of Vermont. Before I began my studies, I worked within the homelessness services sector for close to two decades. My department at UVM focuses on the application of data science, coding, machine learning, mathematics and statistics to complex sociotechnical and other systems.

Why are you taking on a zoning atlas project?

During the first two years of the pandemic, Vermont saw an unprecedented influx of over 19,000 newcomers to its ten cities and many small, bucolic communities. The already-strained housing market lacks the capacity to meet our needs, with a reported 30-40,000 units (at least half of which should be affordable housing) needed by 2030 in order to bring supply in line with current demand. The recent flooding that made national news further underscores the need for climate change resiliency to be part of those housing and planning conversations.

At the same time, Vermont is at a watershed moment in the history of its zoning regulations—S.100, statewide legislation proposing changes for the first time in half a century to the state’s land use law, requires extensive re-writes to the zoning regulations of many of Vermont’s townships and municipalities. 

The Zoning Atlas project will be a vital policy tool to help Vermonters identify where the zoning landscape presents barriers to affordable housing and economic development, community desegregation, and climate change preparedness. We are excited to provide a visual tool that democratizes zoning for policymakers, advocates, and everyday people passionate about housing justice!

How will you use the zoning atlas to support your work?

I am primarily interested in homelessness policy, and in that world, the affirmative furtherance of fair housing is a critical objective of permanent placements for households exiting sheltered or unsheltered homelessness. Providers are strongly encouraged to place families and individuals in higher-resource or higher-opportunity neighborhoods, in contrast with historical patterns of race- and income-based housing segregation.

However, the lack of available affordable or market-rate housing in multifamily developments (the bread and butter of the tenant-based rental voucher system) creates barriers for homelessness services providers in attempting to realize the objectives of AFFH. I am interested in overlaying the distribution of tenant-based rental assistance vouchers with the distribution of zoning regulations to see how municipal land use regulations facilitate or prevent the implementation of this important policy objective.

What kind of partnerships do you have in the zoning atlas work?

The Vermont Zoning Atlas is privileged to work with representatives of a broad cross-section of the state’s statewide, regional, and local housing and planning landscapes.

Our Steering Committee includes partners from the Vermont state Agency for Commerce and Community Development, the Vermont Center for Geographic Information Systems, the Vermont Association of Planning and Development Agencies, the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, Windham Regional Commission, the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, the Fair Housing Project of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, and Middlebury College.

These partnerships have been essential to providing guidance and feedback for our work. For example, planners on the Committee helped early on to identify Vermont-specific zoning data likely to have a significant impact on housing development that was not part of the National Zoning Atlas methodology. As a result, we integrated that additional data capture into our workflow.

Committee members also provided us with education and context about how Vermont’s historic land use reform bill, S.100, was likely to affect our work. They reviewed our progress upon completion of Chittenden County’s jurisdictions and approved changes to the data collection workflow based on our reported challenges. They have also provided vital staffing and financial support by donating intern time and a three-month sponsorship for access to a co-working space.

Why do you think it’s important for everyone to understand zoning?

Zoning is incredibly dense reading, and its history is not particularly pretty. It’s important to know that it is a codified system that was often explicitly used to exclude people from higher-income and white communities, and that the effects of that system are still alive and well today. Understanding zoning gives us insight into how antisocial historical beliefs persist and how they damage our communities and also have an impact on everyone’s wellbeing, safety, and prosperity—both those zoning often excluded and those it was meant to insulate.

Its unintended consequences, like climate change vulnerability, are a cautionary tale for those who create policy that is agnostic—or hostile—to prosocial goals. We must democratize zoning so everyday people understand its impact and work together to mitigate what harmful effects it has, while supporting the ways in which it is also useful in protecting our natural resources and facilitating sensible community development.

Any closing thoughts for Virginians pushing for zoning reform?

Cast a wide net when it comes to external stakeholder engagement! Zoning is an incredibly powerful tool that affects so many dimensions of our housing and community landscapes. If you only include planners on your team, you will miss important perspectives and valuable insight that you could get from working with housing developers or private citizens. Some Zoning Atlas teams have experienced challenges with communities feeling skeptical of zoning reform and what they perceive as its monolithic political agenda, but the reality is that zoning reform matters for everyone and has benefits for people on both sides of the American political party system.

Don’t be afraid to engage people who may be skeptical at first—in fact, they can be your most important allies. Take the time to really be curious about what people think about zoning, how it affects them, what deep feelings and sharp perspectives it inspires, and work hard to understand and befriend people who are different from you so your Zoning Atlas can be useful and meaningful to as diverse an audience as possible!

Stay tuned for additional guest blogs from other state atlas teams!

If you would like to volunteer with the Virginia Zoning Atlas or help fund this innovative research project, please contact us.

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