by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine For more than three decades, Gustave “Gus” Seelig has quietly had a hand in more than a billion dollars’ worth of socially responsible Vermont development projects, including the conservation of affordable housing complexes, the preservation of historic buildings and the biggest land conservation project of the last century.
Today, in the wake of the disastrous COVID-19 pandemic, federal money is pouring into the state for capital improvement, housing, land conservation and economic development.
As a result, Seelig’s agenda is more crowded than ever.
Seelig, 65, was one of the many founders of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board in 1987; since then he’s been the organization’s one and only executive director.
His record is remarkable. Under his leadership, according to the VHCB, the organization has already invested $370 million in state funding to develop or rehabilitate 13,420 affordable housing units, conserved 764 farms with 167,000 acres and 267,600 acres of natural areas and recreational and forest lands, and restored 74 historic community buildings.
VHCB investments have leveraged $1.7 billion in federal private and local funding.
Among these projects have been the Champion Lands buyout in northern Vermont, the Northgate Apartment Complex in Burlington, the historic Latchis Theatre and Hotel, Lilac Hill Farm and the Brattleboro Food Co-op’s grocery-cum-apartments in Brattleboro, and the Green River Reservoir State Park in Lamoille County.
“We make grants and deferred loans to make deals like these happen,” Seelig said. “But for the investments we make, these things don’t get built.”
The VHCB is a creature of the Legislature, but it has far exceeded the dreams of its founders, Seelig said.
“For anyone who has worked in the public sector from the time of the Reagan presidency forward, there has been a mantra that I reject, asking how we can and must do more with less,” Seelig said. “After 40 years of that philosophy, COVID-19 laid bare the problem of growing income inequality and the truth that housing is health care. Without a home staying healthy and safe is truly difficult.”
For 1987, the first year of its existence, the Legislature provided VHCB with $3 million. And technically, the supporting funding is money from the state’s property transfer tax. But the VHCB, which now employees 37 people, also leverages federal, private and foundation money for its many projects. Some years have been lean. Some years the board has had to fight for its survival. But for the past 15 years, its budget has ranged somewhere between $18 million and $25 million.
This year is different.
The pandemic-driven quarantine has exposed the state’s growing homeless problem— there are more than 2,000 homeless households living in motels all over the state — as well as its long-continuing affordable housing shortage. Policymakers are concerned, federal funding is available, and the VHCB is uniquely situated to work on these issues. So the money is flooding in.
“Beginning in 2017 when Governor Scott prosed a housing revenue bond, the yearly budget moved into the $35 million arena,” Seelig said. “Last year it was doubled when the legislature provided $33 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF). This year Governor Scott proposed $20 million in one-time funding for housing through VHCB. The House and Senate each took turns proposing to increase the allocation and then in early May the governor proposed what I call ‘a moonshot for housing,’ asking the Legislature for a $249 million investment from the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA).”
As this story was being written, the Legislature’s Conference Committee on the FY 2022 budget was discussing final funding for the VHCB; the numbers were wobbling somewhere between $120 million and $249 million. Just as I hit deadline, a final figure of $168.85 million — much it from ARPA — was agreed upon.
“This is well beyond what we would have imagined when this session began and $82 million more than was in the budget the Senate passed a couple of weeks ago,” Seelig said. “This is an unexpected moment. It is with great appreciation that we should recognize the joint and truly remarkable commitment and leadership that Governor Phil Scott and the legislative leadership are making at this moment. If President Biden can pass his jobs and infrastructure plan, more federal money could arrive in that legislation as well. As a good friend and colleague said, ‘We need to build a bigger boat.’ The responsibility to deploy these funds well in worthy endeavors is both awesome and humbling.”
In a state awash with nonprofits, it may seem like an odd idea for one nonprofit to fund affordable housing, save farms for the next generation of farmers, assist with the historic preservation of our downtowns and preserve Vermont’s wild natural beauty — all under the same umbrella. But that’s the brilliance of its founding statute, 10 V.S.A. § 302:
(a) The dual goals of creating affordable housing for Vermonters, and conserving and protecting Vermont’s agricultural land, forestland, historic properties, important natural areas, and recreational lands are of primary importance to the economic vitality and quality of life of the State.
(b) In the best interests of all of its citizens and in order to improve the quality of life for Vermonters and to maintain for the benefit of future generations the essential characteristics of the Vermont countryside, and to support farm, forest, and related enterprises, Vermont should encourage and assist in creating affordable housing and in preserving the State’s agricultural land, forestland, historic properties, important natural areas and recreational lands, and in keeping conserved agricultural land in production and affordable for future generations of farmers.
Photo: Gus Seelig speaks at the press conference for Vermont organizations getting $2.3 million from USDA to foster job creation in September 2014. VBM photo.
“At first it seems like a strange idea,” said Darby Bradley, the retired president of the Vermont Land Trust and another founder of the VHCB. “At one level, you think housing cancels open space and open space precludes housing. But where it comes together is when you think, ‘What does the community need to be vibrant and strong?’ Both housing and open space are essential elements of a livable community, just like job opportunities and good schools and clean water. This was the foundation of the idea – focusing not on land or housing but on communities.”
Seelig’s long tenure provides continuity to the idea and the ideals of the organization, Bradley said.
“There were various times when the Legislature wanted to divide the program into two pieces, housing and conservation,” he said. “What Gus and others argued, successfully, was that you’d lose the focus on the community. Gus understood the philosophy behind the original idea, and he has provided continuity as board members and governors and commissioners have changed. It’s a tremendous service and it has allowed Vermont to take advantage of tens of millions of dollars over the years for housing and conservation. Gus is the person who led that whole program.”
Seelig said he sees the VHCB as representing “both sides of land use.”
“If you want to conserve the Vermont countryside, then where you want to grow is in our town and village centers,” he said. “So conserving the countryside is one frame. A second frame is that everybody wants to permanently protect the resources the state has invested in. As we’ve dealt with the aftermath of flooding, we’ve come to better understand the value of conservation. The more we understand things like climate change, the more that people find we have that a common goal in mind. There are lots of ways that you can look at this mission, but in the context of land use, this is a way to do a lot of public good at once.”
Much of the credit for the VHCB’s success goes to the board of directors which runs it, Seelig said.
“We’ve just been really blessed with really intelligent, thoughtful people who could guide our work over the years and represent the whole state of Vermont in making decisions about where the funding would go,” he said.
The VHCB should be a model for the nation, said Connie Snow, the retired executive director of the Windham and Windsor Land Trust. She started working…