As Vermont's housing market boomed in the late 1980s, the state began to change drastically. High demand encouraged landlords to raise rents, driving low-income Vermonters out of their apartments. Housing prices were so high that many Vermont natives could not afford to own homes, even as wealthy vacationers snatched them up as recreational properties. Open space began to dwindle. Farmers, facing uncertain markets for their dairy products and produce, could not afford to turn down lucrative offers to buy their land, feeding the cycle of speculation and rampant development.
As other states struggled to control their own problems with suburban sprawl, Vermont proposed a novel solution to the social and economic problems created by high housing costs. Created in 1987, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust Fund united interests that are often seen as adversarial in an effort to control growth and maintain quality of life in Vermont. Through purchasing easement rights, which grant the government the ability to prevent development and ensure right of way, on land across the state, the Fund has transformed the economic and cultural incentives for Vermont landowners to develop their land.
Conservationists who seek the protection of open space and unspoiled nature often find themselves at odds with advocates for low-income housing, who often urge development, arguing that more housing will drive prices down. Though they historically saw themselves as adversaries, both groups sought to protect values that appealed to Vermont voters and mitigate the problems caused by rapid growth and a high housing market.
The Trust Fund facilitated investment of over $50 million in private charitable foundation funds for perpetual protection and stewardship of farm, forest, and historic properties. Instead of focusing only on traditional conservation patrons like wealthy landowners, the fund increased the purchase of easements from working farmers and foresters to limit development and provide capital to reinvest in agriculture and forestry. The Fund encouraged redevelopment of existing town centers under progressive goals of socio-economic integration to avoid sprawl, protecting the state's open space and preserving traditional settlement patterns.
Since its creation, monies in the Trust Fund have been used to maintain open space and affordable housing in every region of Vermont. It provides grants, loans, and technical assistance to cities or nonprofit agencies with workable plans to protect housing or open space. Nearly 8,000 units of affordable housing have been developed or maintained with the fund. Over 354,000 acres of open space and farmland have been protected.
The Trust Fund maintains broad support statewide and across political lines, serving as a welcome example of how competing interests can find common ground. Many other states, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Washington, have taken steps toward replicating the strategies and successes of Vermont's Trust Fund.