Housing study: There’s too little

Affordability, impact of subsidized units found in new report

Michelle Monroe

By Michelle Monroe

Executive Editor

The Facts

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ST. ALBANS CITY — Regardless of income level, there is more demand for housing in St. Albans City than there is housing and wage earners’ ability to keep up with the cost is a concern as well.

Those findings and others related to housing locally are laid out in a report from the St. Albans City Planning and Northwest Regional Planning commissions.

The city council discussed the 89-page completed study for the first time at a meeting earlier this month.

The study found that households in the city that own their homes have a median income of $70,500 per year, but for households that rent have annual median income of $22,163.

Median rent in the city is $820 and a household earning $22,600 per year could only afford $571 per month in rent, a gap of $249, according to the study.

The planning commission also looked at median wages in four of the most common sectors in the city – the federal government, manufacturing, private educational and health services, and retail.

Workers earning the average wage in three of those sectors could comfortably afford an apartment in the city, but with an average wage of just $24,600 retail workers could not. A city apartment costs $206 more per month than they could pay.

Household ownership is also beyond the reach of many of the city’s residents.

Someone earning the city’s overall median wage (includes both homeowners and renters), $45,700, would have $1,143 per month to pay for housing, making it possible for them to buy a house valued at $154,700, but the median price for a home in the city is $167,500.

A family earning 80 percent of the city’s median income could afford a mortgage of just $106,400 and a family earning $22,900 could afford just $34,000.

“Housing is a need across the board in almost any socio-economic group,” said Chip Sawyer, city director of planning and development, who wrote the study on behalf of the planning commission. “If the city council had a socio-economic policy goal … housing could be a powerful tool for accomplishing that goal,” he said.

The need for housing is clear in the low vacancy rates. The vacancy rate for owner-occupied homes is just 1.8 percent, well below the three percent rate considered healthy by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA).

The vacancy rate for rental properties is 3.9 percent. Five percent is considered healthy.

Meeting housing needs is not solely the city’s responsibility, suggested Sawyer, stating housing is a regional issue.

The council had asked the planning commission to examine housing in the city including the question of what impact non-profit housing developments have on the Grand List. Some private landlords also had argued non-profits would get the best tenants, leaving less desirable tenants to private landlords.

Subsidized housing

There are two forms of subsidized housing in Vermont: vouchers that follow the tenant and subsidized projects that are open only to people who earn below a specific amount. Rent in the subsidized projects typically run by non-profit corporations is based on a percentage of income.

Starting in 2007, the state required municipalities to assess those housing projects based upon the rent they receive rather than their market value. Collectively, the value of those properties on the city’s Grand List dropped $1.5 million and they paid $28,000 less in taxes that year.

Since 2007 the value of those properties has increased at a slower rate than the overall value of the Grand List.

It was not possible to easily assess the impact the non-profit projects may have on the value of surrounding homes and businesses, and that information was not included in the study. The projects, which tend to be well maintained, may well add to the value of neighboring properties.

“Several of the largest development in the city over the past 20 years have been project-based subsidized housing developments, many of which improved the property and neighborhood and added to the Grand List,” the study states.

Subsidized housing projects in the city have a total of 217 apartments, but 181 of those are available only to the elderly or those with disabilities.

To determine the impact of subsidized housing projects on the owners of market rate apartments, the planning commission surveyed landlords, receiving 127 responses to the 400 surveys distributed.

Asked if the subsidized affected their ability to find good tenants, 61.2 percent said ‘no.’

Of those who said ‘yes,’ 64 percent also reported that the profits from their rental units had decreased in recent years. Only 40 percent of landlords who said subsidized housing wasn’t a problem said their profits had decreased. There was similar split in the answer to a question asking landlords if they had difficulty maintaining their properties.

“Landlords that have seen their profits decrease and are having trouble maintaining their structures have the most negative view of subsidized housing,” the study concludes.

There were landlords who said the subsidized housing units “cherry-pick” the best tenants.

Other landlords said the non-profits weren’t an issue because they themselves were careful to select only good tenants, and one commented that tenants prefer his apartments to those offered by non-profits. “Good tenants try them out but quickly leave,” the landlord wrote.

In assessing the argument that subsidized housing interferes with market rate housing, the planning commission pointed out that the two are not intended to compete. Subsidized housing, they noted, is aimed at low-income households that cannot afford market rate apartments.

Further, Section 8 vouchers make it possible for families to afford market rate apartments by providing a subsidy tenants can use to pay rent at either subsidized or market rate apartments.

Private landlords also have the ability to screen tenants using references, credit checks and background checks, just as the non-profit landlords do, the commission found.

Finally, the city’s low rental vacancy rate would tend to benefit landlords rather than tenants, the commission stated.

Non-profit landlords also indicated they sometimes have problem tenants who don’t pay rent, don’t maintain their apartments or create disruptions, just as private landlords experience.

The commission did find one possible negative impact on the private rental market. “There may be a stigma on the city’s rental market associated with the belief that there are a high number of subsidized units leading to undesirable neighborhoods,” the study states.

Ten percent of the city’s housing stock is occupied by households with a Section 8 voucher, which is likely tied to the difference between income and rents in the city. The median rent is well above the amount a renting household can afford.

That may contribute to the large number of students moving in and out of St. Albans City School.

“We’re in this huge game of musical chairs,” said the school’s home-school coordinator Mark Hoben, suggesting that families are scrambling to find decent affordable places to live. “We have more need than we have housing.”

The school has long identified the constant movement of families in and out of the district as a hardship for students and teachers. Educational researchers have found students fall behind every time they change schools and that the effect is cumulative. Students who move are more likely to drop out and have behavioral problems regardless of income level.

The city council, having just received the report, has taken the study under advisement and expects further discussion.

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The Messenger will report further on this study in upcoming editions