In 2021 Vermont had the highest percentage of inbound migration of any state in the country according to United Van Lines. That is good news for a state willing to pay people to come. The challenge is that the newly arrived found themselves at the mercy of an inhospitable housing market. Not only were there few homes, the homes found were expensive, and were on the market for uncharacteristically short periods of time.

The “issue” is commonly referred to as Vermont’s affordable housing crisis. Which, to most Vermonters, means housing targeted at the low and middle-income earners. But the crisis is now well beyond that demographic. There are few bargains to be found and there is a general hesitancy for an existing homeowner in Vermont to sell, if the objective is to buy another home in Vermont. The housing stock is not available and what is available has soared in price.

It is a great time to sell, just a lousy time to buy.

The pandemic is responsible for part of the problem. Vermont was one of the spots to move to because of its proximity to population centers and its relative safety. Working remotely also played to our advantage. Between 2019 and 2021, the average price for a single-family home shot up roughly 40 percent.

The influx of newcomers and the jump in prices should have spurred the demand side of the growth equation. It hasn’t. 

In the 1980s - when the demand was far less - we were still building about 3,000 homes a year. Now, we are building about 400 homes annually and have for a decade. 

What did we think was going to happen?

It is the crisis de jour. It is the governor’s top priority. Legislators agree. Municipalities talk about it with their elected boards. Ideas are a dime a dozen, including incentive programs to rebuild the trades profession and federal money to subsidize housing projects. Large employers are even looking at the need to subsidize housing for their employees and to take on the task themselves.

But at most levels, the housing crisis has been focused on the affordable end of the spectrum and how it can be addressed through the state’s non-profits. No one denies the importance of affordable housing, but there is more to it, and the challenges [and opportunities] vary according to region and stakeholders. What applies in Chittenden County doesn’t apply in Orleans.

Burlington, for example, has about 20 percent of its medium-priced homes being bought by investors motivated to flip them to Airbnbs. That removes a sizable portion of the housing stock from the market for those looking for single-family homes. That trend is also present in the state’s ski areas, but, for example, not so much in Franklin County, or other more rural areas.

How the challenge is addressed will require different approaches, including municipalities reconsidering the zoning regulations that limit what can be built on a single building plot. It would seem obvious that the quickest and cheapest way to provide additional housing would be through measures that allowed increased density.

But it seems a stretch for our housing needs to be met any other way than through market incentives that give communities and developers the help they need to build housing developments large enough to make a difference.

Taking from the St. Albans City’s TIF model, consider the potential if St. Albans City, St. Albans Town, Georgia, or Milton [or any combination of the above] put together a TIF proposal, signed on several developers, and funded a proposed development of several hundred homes. The developer[s] make their money, people find single-family homes they can afford and ultimately the taxpayers get their money back through increased grand lists.

It would be a public-private relationship that produced the homes to families who want to live and work in Vermont, but who can’t find homes, let alone homes they can afford. This sort of approach would also be easily scaled, and targeted, to help address the state’s needs.

This approach, or something akin, is essential to consider and to do so with dispatch. The 2020 Vermont Housing Needs Assessment shows a continual decline in the number of single-family homes being built, to the point where we completely stagnate by 2025. Of the projected homes to be built, 89 percent of the increase [2,090 households] is forecast for Chittenden County. Franklin County is next with 445 households, Lamoille with 164, and Addison with 137 households. Five of our counties are slated to see a decline in the number of homes.

That sort of need should motivate our leaders to think creatively and to consider approaches other than what we have done traditionally. It’s no longer an issue of affordable housing intended for just the low income; it is housing in general. 

If we don’t address the issue, it won’t be long before people stop looking.

by Emerson Lynn

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