The group of community members went into break-out sessions Thursday night at St. Albans City Hall to talk about housing with the person seated next to them.

ST. ALBANS — How would you fix housing? 

Staff with the Northwest Regional Planning Commission reached out to the community this past Thursday to get an answer, and after about an hour of discussion, it became apparent there are no quick fixes.

“What was a chronic problem in the past around housing has become a crisis,” Barry Lampke, Working Communities Challenge project manager, said Thursday. 

NRPC’s latest housing assessment estimates that just under 7,000 households – out of roughly 19,000 in Franklin County – spend more than 30% of their incomes to pay for housing costs, including utilities. 

And for many who fall under that umbrella, its high costs essentially freezes the market in place as people can’t find a place to move to, even if underhoused. Meanwhile, the state faces an incoming workforce shortage that will most likely hamper economic growth for decades to come – at least until 2040, according to NPRC projections.

During a review of the county’s future housing needs, NRPC officials estimate that under current trend lines, it will take 20 years until younger people will be able to enter the market in higher numbers.

“So looking into the future, we looked at some household growth production projections. We're going to continue to grow at slower rates. There's going to be a continued need for senior housing as the Boomer generation continues to age. But then you'll see by 2040, we start to have a recovery of households headed by younger individuals,” NRPC senior planner Greta Brunswick said.

Until then, it will be up to the community to push forward what it wants to see in terms of new housing. One of the underlying issues of the county’s housing stock is how many are single family homes, which largely leaves apartment buildings and other multi-unit spaces out of the mix completely.

The goal, Brunswick said, is to create a healthy mixture of housing options that are safe and affordable to those across the board.

“I'm interested to hear the ideas that people have and how they’re going to help solve this problem in Franklin and Grand Isle counties and in the state of Vermont,” NRPC executive director Catherine Dimitruk said. “Housing is hard, but we can do hard things.“ 

How to get there

While NRPC staff provided the data, they left it up to the night’s attending community members to discuss what they’d like to see be done to improve the housing situation. 

The session delivered a hodgepodge of ideas.

Some advocated for the need for more control over the housing market to cut down on financial markets inflating the commodity. Others wanted more information about accessory dwelling units and incentives.

Special attention, however, was paid to the role that property taxes play in the larger housing market, as well as Franklin County’s dearth of small-scale homes for first-time homebuyers.

On the topic of property taxes, one community member questioned why seniors had to pay property taxes when they don’t have any children in schools. 

Another asked about Chittenden County rental assistance rates raising the floor on what constitutes an acceptable rental rate in Franklin County.

The question of property taxes also came into the equation when the conversation turned toward the possibility of flipping old commercial office space into co-housing or apartments. As the city’s planning director Chip Sawyer explained, there’s a gap between tax rates between the two kinds of buildings, and if more people decide to work from home, that means less revenue from commercial properties. 

Sawyer largely provided clarification on certain points during the discussion, but he also pointed at the need for the state to provide sufficient resources for its housing crisis. Locally, there’s just not enough wrangling one can do without tackling the entirety of the issue, which bleeds into a community’s health and welfare.

“This is a lot more complicated than needing a larger stock of houses,” he said.

As for the county’s missing small homes, the problem locks renters – even those who can afford to buy – into a situation where they can’t progress because of a lack of options. Older people in larger homes looking to downsize are stuck for the same reason.

Some seniors also are reluctant about leaving their homes for something more affordable due to sentimental reasons, the town’s interim development director Al Voegele said.

NRPC initiatives

While the conversation didn’t result in any official government action, Lampke said listening sessions like the one Thursday help officials get a better understanding of the problem.

As the head of the grant-funded Working Communities Challenge, he’s helping NRPC hold such sessions to bring qualitative data into what is largely NRPC’s quantitative understanding of the county’s future housing needs.

“One of the ways that we really want to be able to capture what has happened in the past few years is to gather stories, about peoples’ experiences, about how housing has been a challenge and what opportunities have been created when somebody is given a home and how their life is changed,” Lampke said.

After collecting the info, Lampke said NRPC plans on releasing its report on housing in the upcoming months as part of its latest countywide housing needs assessment study.

In the meantime, Lampke’s team has been focused on helping people understand the laws and funding resources around accessory dwelling units. He held a well-intended workshop on the issue last week.

NRPC is also pushing forward its bylaw modernization project, which is updating land use plans to help increase zoning densities. Participating towns with the project include St. Albans Town, Enosburgh, Highgate, Montgomery and Sheldon.

“We're looking at these missing middle housing types that are affordable by design – the accessory dwelling unit, the duplexes, the row homes, the cottage courts, triplexes, fourplexes, as examples  – that are walkable, accessible to services and employment,” Brunswick said. “Gentle infill can happen to our streets in a way that fits in with the context of each community's neighborhood.” 

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