When the Sun Expires and the Earth Is a Cold, Dead Place, Only Cockroaches and Vermont’s Remote Worker Incentive Program Will Survive

Now comes VTDigger to ask a question with only one reasonable answer: “Amid a housing crisis, will Vermont keep paying people to move here?”

Sadly, the reasonable answer — “No” — is not the real life answer — “Of course we will.”

Yep, our Wise Political Heads may be prepared to kick our homeless where the sun don’t shine, but they seem bound and determined to continue the remote worker incentive program. You know, the one that reimburses people to move to Vermont? Meaning it helps people with enough resources to pay their moving expenses up front and wait for the incentive payment to arrive? The program with absolutely no objective evidence to support its premise?

This thing got started in 2018, before the pandemic and before the related in-migration of the affluent helped create a desperation-level housing shortage. It was the brainchild of our incentive-lovin’ Governor Phil Scott, but legislative Democrats glommed onto it like a lamprey that’s found a nice fat fish. And they’re still firmly attached; the current FY24 budget, going before the full Senate today, would provide $1 million in incentives for people who can afford to buy homes in our overpriced, undersupplied housing market.

These are the same lawmakers who routinely delay and defer and defeat good ideas over a supposed lack of evidence. A lack repeatedly and thoroughly documented by Our Inconvenient Auditor Doug Hoffer, who has looked and looked and found no evidence that the program has any tangible impact.

So let’s take a look at the stated arguments for keeping an unproven program going under the worst possible circumstances. Senate Majority Leader Alison Clarkson resorts to the tried-and-untrue “one tool in a toolbox” metaphor, which avoids the uncomfortable question of actual merit. We’ve just gotta keep our toolbox full, even if some tools are highly useful and others are nothing more than dead weight. Existential question: If you put a brick in a toolbox, does it become a tool?

Vermont Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein posits a two-fer. First, she completely bypasses the housing shortage to say that we still have a workforce shortage. True enough, but that doesn’t negate the housing problem.

She then rolls out an oldie but a baddie: The program pays for itself in unquantifiable publicity.

While the initial rollout drew the biggest headlines — in such outlets as The New York Times and CNBC — the commissioner said she’s still seeing platforms with a national reach like Zillow plug Vermont in lists of locales that will pay you to relocate.

Yeah, great, Zillow tells you Vermont will pay you to move in. On the same website offering a dismally scant and dauntingly overpriced selection of available housing? The half-million-dollar hovels that briefly appear on the Burlington market only to be snapped up immediately? The million-dollar McMansions of the Chittenden suburbs?

Yes, the Burlington market is especially overheated, but the housing crunch exists everywhere in Vermont. Well, except for the places that affluent outsiders would rarely choose to live.

The budget debate has produced some movement away from the program. The original appropriation in the Senate budget was $1.5 million. That’s been cut to $1 million, with $500,000 shifted to a job training program for Reach Up recipients.

Which, needless to say, is a proven financial winner, not to mention a way to help struggling Vermonters earn their way out of poverty.

Senate Appropriations Committee chair Jane Kitchel, the same person who rebuffed housing advocates’ “desire” to not kick thousands of Vermonters out on the street, kept the program in the budget “in deference” to the Scott administration and the Senate Economic Development Committee.

Gee, “deference” has never before stopped Kitchel’s committee or any other panel of budget-writers from axing a program. It is, in fact, the very reason we have appropriations committees: to evaluate competing claims on the public purse and make tough decisions irrespective of what policy committees might have decided.

But I guess “deference” is as good a reason as any for continuing a program whose benefits were unproven when it was created, and whose raison d’être has since been crushed under the weight of larger social and economic forces.

There is still hope that this program will get zeroed out, as it should. It would be a small blow for common sense, but in our legislative process any such blow is a welcome development.


3 thoughts on “When the Sun Expires and the Earth Is a Cold, Dead Place, Only Cockroaches and Vermont’s Remote Worker Incentive Program Will Survive

  1. Dan Daniel

    Everyone knows why it is kept: it serves the ‘right’ kind of people. Who says that Democrats don’t know how to use a dog whistle of their own technocratic neoliberal pitch? It’s a twofer of its own- you cater to professional neighbors with money AND you put more downward pressure on the Vermont housing market. With enough pressure, the ‘wrong’ people will finally get the message and move elsewhere. This being the real reason most Vermonters don’t want low-income housing, not wanting such people to live in their giant gated community of a state.


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