If asked which state has the largest lot size for home buyers, a commonsense response would be someplace that had few people and lots of land. Like Wyoming. Or Montana. 

The answer is Vermont. And the comparisons are not close. The median lot size in Vermont is 78,408 square feet. Second place is New Hampshire whose median lot size is 60 percent smaller than ours.

The information comes from a 2021 study from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and it was explained that Vermont’s outsized housing lots were “required to be larger in order to preserve natural habitats and encourage agriculture.”

Mission accomplished. And we continue to spend a lot of money to conserve land, to prevent it from ever being developed, and to encourage agriculture. [We also have far fewer dairy farms today than when our conservation efforts began.] Regardless, it’s still a politically popular impulse. We’re conservers. If we had to choose between having land developed, or kept open, we’d choose to keep it open. It’s a choice that has guided Vermont for the last half-century.

It’s also one reason Vermont has a critical shortage of housing. Which also explains why most people find housing in Vermont unaffordable. A generation ago we used to build roughly 3,000 new homes a year. This past decade that average plummeted to 400 new homes. The median price for a home today is roughly $350,000. The median household income is $62,000, which makes buying that home almost impossible. This is what happens when the demand far exceeds the supply.

At long last, the housing crisis has caught the attention of lawmakers who have been “blessed” with hundreds of millions of dollars appropriated from the federal government to address such issues. Over the past three years, $300 million has been pledged in efforts to build homes affordable to the average Vermont family.

But legislators should be straightforward with Vermonters. The money pledged is a pittance compared to the need. And throwing money at nonprofits to build affordable housing is a small part of the effort and the direction required to make a meaningful difference.

What’s required is acknowledging that we’re a big part of the problem. We caused this. Which goes back to the average lot size being so disproportionately large. The lots are that big because we have regulated ourselves into that position. For decades we fell prey to advocates who thought keeping growth at bay would ease the pressure on our schools, our roads and bridges, and our municipal services. The real reason such thinking was never opposed, let alone reversed, is because we saw the restrictions as something that protected those of us already here.

Are we beginning to change our minds? Will we admit our errors?

Not unless we change local zoning ordinances to allow new construction. Not unless we rethink the laws with nonsensical regulations that push construction prices beyond what developers can afford. Not unless we become comfortable with the fact that to meet our housing needs requires us to accept multifamily housing as part of our neighborhoods. Not until we find out what our potential is to increase housing densities.

That’s a heavy lift. It’s even more daunting when it’s understood that as home prices increase so does the homeowner’s equity, and hence, the opposition. Today, we are second in the nation as far as “equity-rich” housing is concerned. We have a loan-to-value ratio of 64.8 percent.  Only Idaho is higher at 66.7 percent. In part, that’s because we are also the second oldest state and those in their homes aren’t inclined to leave. For the average Vermonter that 64.8 percent equity figure represents about 70 percent of their net worth. That percentage has jumped considerably over the last two years, courtesy of the pandemic.

The work to be done is convincing Vermonters that making it easier to build new housing, and working to make zoning restrictions less restrictive for multi-family housing, won’t hurt those already here.

We need to redo a regulatory process buried in self-interest. We put it in place and we’re the ones who need to undo it. If not, the problem remains.

We can’t build our way out of this with the money given to us by the feds. Our legislators should be straight with Vermonters as to what is possible and what isn’t and help lead the way to better choices locally.

By Emerson Lynn

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