Hey, remember when I wondered where all the other witnesses were? The ones who should be testifying on behalf of all the groups and institutions sure to be affected by the scheduled end of the emergency motel voucher program?
Turns out it’s just as well they didn’t show up, because the hearing was way too short even for the witnesses who did appear. The whole thing was kind of embarrassing, in fact. (It doesn’t help when lawmakers like Sen. Ann Cummings seem to be ostentatiously not paying attention, but it’s hard to resist the siren song of personal electronics.)
Wednesday morning, two Senate committees — Economic Development and Health & Welfare — held a joint hearing on emergency housing and, just as a bonus, the lack of housing and support services specifically for people with disabilities.
Either issue warranted a good bit of time. Instead, both were crammed into a single hour. Seven witnesses were on the schedule which [whips out abacus] means each of them were allotted less than ten minutes to make their case and answer questions.
Before I go on, lI should say that in the long run, this hearing will be a footnote. What matters are the discussions and negotiations around the FY2024 budget, and whether provision will be made for adequate housing and shelter for the 1,800 households who face eviction when the motel program is allowed to expire.
To compound the critical shortage of time, it appears that the witnesses were not advised to keep their presentations brief. The first witness (seen above), Susan Aronoff of the Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council, launched into a full background narrative before even arriving at her point, which is that Vermonters with disabilities get the short end of the stick when it comes to housing and support services. She went on for almost half the available time before Health & Welfare Chair Ginny Lyons stepped in to put on the brakes.
The next two witnesses, former gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel and Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition interim executive director Anne Sosin, were better prepared for their allotted time, but even so they rushed through their presentations as if the ax might fall at any moment.
Sosin came with a well-constructed presentation (accessible here, highly recommended) focused on the key issues: We face a disaster of homelessness, it will cost more to deal with the consequences than it would to simply extend the voucher program, and there are tried and tested solutions that are actually doable and won’t cost an arm and a leg.
The next witness was a heartbreaker. Laurie Mumley is a Shelburne resident with a developmentally disabled son. She’s worked herself into exhaustion trying to care for her son and obtain essential services, including accessible housing. Her story was also cut short due to a lack of time.
By then, the hearing’s time limit had expired. Two witnesses were told the committees would try to schedule another hearing and invited to submit their testimony in writing.
At no time during the hour did committee members have the chance to ask questions, which is kind of the point of having people appear before committees in real time. “I think there are probably a million questions, but I’m going to move along,” said Lyons at the end of Sosin’s cameo.
Whenever they cut a witness short, committee leaders profusely thanked the witnesses for their testimony, which they called “important” and “terrific.” But the words did not match the implied disrespect of the minimal scheduling commitment.
I know, it’s tough running a legislative committee. Time is always in short supply. The schedule is constantly in flux, and sometimes things just don’t work out. But these witnesses are busy people who do a lot of work to prepare their testimony and interrupt their workdays to appear on the committee’s schedule.
And emergency housing may well turn out to be the signature issue of the 2024 session, whether leadership wants it to be or not. If the voucher program isn’t extended, we’re going to see hundreds and hundreds of Vermonters kicked out of motels with nowhere else to go. That kind of humanitarian disaster threatens to overshadow any amount of positive work done on climate change or child care or anything else on the majority’s agenda.
As I said earlier, this hearing means nothing in terms of how the issue will be addressed. There are signs that Lyons, for one, is looking for a way to avoid mass evictions. If she can get enough support and convince Senate budget writers to do something about this, nobody will remember this hearing.
Still, it’s a heck of a way to run a railroad.
Legislators aren’t losing their homes; why should they they give a damn? They get to go home to their renovated 19th century farmhouse manses, kick off their shoes, and complain to their spouses about how activists are trying to make them feel guilty for their economic and social privilege.
“complain to their spouses about how activists are trying to make them feel guilty for their economic and social privilege.”