Those familiar with the housing market in Vermont have seldom seen what’s before us. Prices are at historic highs. Homes are on the market for days, not weeks or months, as has been the norm. Sellers are getting their asking prices, and then some. The flip side is that there is not much housing available and what is available is beyond the reach of the average Vermonter, let alone first time home buyers.
How long this imbalance lasts is anyone’s guess, but it comes at the same time Vermont is being touted as one of the most habitable places on the planet in a “climate challenged” world. We’re one of the very few places where climate change might have its advantages, i.e., winters that aren’t as long, extended growing seasons, and, who knows, maybe more sunshine. We also don’t have to stress about rising sea levels, being washed out to sea by a hurricane, or having our forests go up in smoke, or dealing with droughts, deserts and months on end when the temperature never dips below 110.
These would appear to be advantages to a state that has identified demographics as being its number one challenge. For decades now we’ve made it clear that to be prosperous we need a larger population. Now, we have to pay people to move here.
Nothing has really worked to move the numbers in a meaningful direction. Part of the problem is our size. Part of it is weather. Part of the problem is a lack of affordable housing. Part is because we don’t have a job base sufficient to attract the sorts of talent we’d prefer, or the proximity to large markets. We’re also an expensive place to live.
What has changed — cross your fingers — is a post-Covid world that is figuring out the advantages of working remotely, and the dramatic refocus on the need to deal with climate change. Vermont stands to gain from both. That gain could intensify as the perils of climate change elsewhere become more pronounced.
These circumstances are coincidently timed with $2.7 billion the state has coming its way through the various federal stimulus packages. Specifically, the Scott administration is pushing forward with literally hundreds of millions of dollars to address broadband needs in our hard-to-reach rural areas, and to build up our meager affordable housing stock, two key metrics in attracting new growth to Vermont.
What is common to both that they take time to bring to fruition, and time is something we don’t have much of. The stimulus money has to be spent by 2024 and we could easily fritter that away if we are not focused on what needs to be done.
On broadband, it’s already been recognized that we can get service to a sizable percentage of those without by subsidizing the hook-up and subscriptions for service that already exists, but which many can’t afford.
On affordable housing, the administration has proposed spending a phenomenal $249 million to help meet the state’s needs. It’s also proposed bypassing the Act 250 environmental process for housing developments in downtowns and existing neighborhoods, just to ensure that the money can be spent by 2024.
This has raised the eyebrows of legislators. Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, summed the concern: “My concern here — not with this [housing] proposal, necessarily, but just with the amount of dollars coming in — is that we want to be sure that we don’t go to sleep in Vermont one night and wake up in New Jersey.”
We’ve obsessed about not waking up in New Jersey for a half century. We’re all good. There are three counties — Chittenden, Franklin and Lamoille — that are showing any signs of growth, the rest of Vermont is either losing population or struggling to stay even. Even in Northwestern Vermont, our rate of growth is about half the national average. We couldn’t be New Jersey if we wanted to be.
As our numbers dwindle, it becomes harder and harder to maintain our prosperity and any sense of economic equity.
The skeptics of the Act 250 exclusion say the law isn’t a barrier, that most decisions are made in a matter of months, not years. That’s true. But it’s a case where percentages don’t tell the story. Where Act 250 is often problematic is with the larger projects; the ones that actually make a difference.
The administration’s proposal would hopefully include sizable developments, not individual dwellings. These are the developments that need to be pushed through the process as expeditiously as can be reasonably done. It’s the depth of this need that raises other questions that need to be considered, such as a municipality’s zoning laws, and what type of housing is allowed where, and whether density requirements are appropriate. Should new financing ideas be considered, such as lifetime leases? What about design competitions for tiny homes, homes that are data rich and particularly attractive to specific cohorts?
Vermont has a number of opportunities before it, opportunities that demand a tremendous amount of creativity if they are to be fully realized. Let’s begin the conversation figuring out what we can do, not what we can’t. This isn’t New Jersey.
by Emerson Lynn