Middlebury housing market tight for young professionals

MIDDLEBURY — The first time Amy Yuen, 34, looked for a house she was a graduate student in Atlanta. The housing bubble had yet to burst and houses moved fast, selling within a few months at most, in the city known for its sprawl.
The second time she looked for a house it was after marrying, having a child and moving to Middlebury where she found employment as associate professor of political science at Middlebury College. Here she encountered a very different scene: Instead of swaths of new development, she found in the quaint area either quasi-mansions out of her price range or older houses that needed work.
“We just didn’t have the funds or the time to do major work on the house,” she said. “We needed something that was move-in ready.”
Yuen and her husband, Brett Simison, a 40-year-old freelance photographer, looked at 10 houses in Bristol, East Middlebury, Middlebury and Vergennes mostly in the $200,000 range. They ended up in the market for nearly six months, a typical time frame in this area according to Yuen. In the end, they settled for a house over 100 years old in Vergennes, which they purchased in May of last year.
“We found that you get more house for your money if you live in Bristol and Vergennes compared to Middlebury,” she said, adding property taxes are lower there, as well.
Cassandra McDonough, 31, was born and raised in Middlebury but moved away to attend St. Michael’s College. Afterward graduating she settled in Burlington working as a senior business analyst for a bank there. Now married with a 9-month-old child, she recently bought a house with her husband Marc, 32, in Middlebury close to her family. Intent on finding a house in Middlebury, they encountered similar difficulties to Yuen in her search.
One weekend in August, for instance, McDonough and her husband looked at five houses also in the $200,000 range. According to her, a couple of the houses needed new roofs, others needed all new windows and one needed a new heating system.
“It’s a little disappointing that there isn’t more available in the mid-range,” she wrote in an email to the Independent shortly after. “If we weren’t so adamant about buying in Middlebury, I would probably look in a neighboring town because it looks like there is more available.”
Luckily for the McDonoughs, one of the houses they looked at early on was move-in ready and on an acre of land — a big improvement from their city lot in Burlington. After a couple of weeks of deliberating, they made an offer and bought the house for just over $260,000.
Yuen and McDonough represent a demographic the town of Middlebury has been aspiring to attract: young professionals with families. As a shire town with a lively downtown and the cultural offerings of an elite college, many believe Middlebury could be an attractive place for such families to settle and raise their children. But a dearth of moderately priced housing in good condition is an important reason why it is a challenge even to keep those already living there from moving away.
Town planners have prominently voiced this problem in Middlebury’s Town Plan. Section 2.5 states, “Affordable middle-income housing presents Middlebury’s greatest housing challenge … As we look into the future, Middlebury must strive for a more balanced housing market.”
The planning commission completed the massive update to the town plan last year. Ted Dunakin, who has worked in Middlebury’s planning and zoning office for several years and as town planner since July, saw housing evolve during the updating process as an important component of the plan.
“There is certainly a sense from what the planning commission learned … that we do have an adequate supply of low-income housing (but) that moderate range, plus or minus $200,000, there is a gap,” he said.
Most agree that Middlebury has done a satisfactory job providing housing options for low-income residents even amidst a statewide affordable housing shortage. The town wrote an affordable housing inclusionary requirement into its zoning code and has worked with the Addison County Community Trust (ACCT) to increase the availability of low-income apartments and modular homes.
But with relatively low demand and a high cost of land in a shire town like Middlebury, some developers say it is hard for them to profitably build houses in the mid-level range without the government incentives they receive for developing low-income housing.
“Land, especially improved land that has the utilities and road services … that you can develop easily, is expensive,” said John Tenny. He ended a 16-year run on Middlebury’s selectboard in 2012 and is president of both Mill Bridge Construction and ACCT.
Chris Snyder, executive vice president of Snyder Homes, is one of the few private sector developers currently building mid-range houses in the Middlebury area. Snyder Homes’ Village Glen development on Cottage Lane (between Middle Road and Creek Road) was started in 2006 in collaboration with the Vermont Housing Financing Agency (VHFA) with the goal of offering affordable mid-range housing. Snyder encountered those high development and construction costs.
“What is happening is you have too high costs and you are trying to provide housing at a relatively lower price, and it is certainly a challenge to build them at the price point at which the marketplace says that they need to be at,” he said.
Furthermore, in an area like Middlebury there is not a huge demand for housing in that sector.
“In a county like this in a town like this the absorption rate is slow,” said Tenny. “So a developer puts a lot of money on the line … and they have to take a long, long time to get the project to play out, so you end up paying all your profit to the bank in interest — it’s very hard to be a developer here.”
This proved true for Village Glen, which needed seven or eight  years to build out its 24 units — much longer than expected, according to Maura Collins, the policy and planning manager for VHFA. While Snyder says in the past couple of years his company has begun to sell homes at a quicker pace, they still have four vacant housing sites, which Snyder hopes to fill soon.
As a result of the challenges developers face, the housing inventory in the area remains lacking in the mid-level range.
Ingrid Punderson of IPJ Real Estate has first-hand experience with the challenges of finding updated mid-level homes.
“It’s difficult,” she said about finding a moderately priced home. “When you look at the inventory in MLS (Multiple Listing Service), the age of the houses is very old.”
Late this summer, about 60 percent of the 53 active listings for Middlebury on MLS were between $150,000 and $250,000. But in the last year, fewer than half of the 59 homes that have closed were in that range.
Punderson believes the millennial generation’s higher standards for first homes makes selling them even harder.
“Now every buyer is going to get a home inspection and it turns up stuff you would never think needs to be done,” she said, using energy-efficient windows as an example. “Twenty years ago not everyone had home inspections, now it’s par for the course.”
Jill Fraga, a realtor for Century 21 Jack Associates, takes this point even farther. She blames the millennial generation’s feelings of entitlement and lack of practical skills more than the condition of the housing inventory.
“If (young buyers) are willing to put in capital for home improvement there are lots of choices,” she said. “But they tend not to have vision, they feel they have limited options because they want houses they can move right into.”
However they can attract that demographic, town leaders agree it would benefit Middlebury to have more young families settle here. For one, schools like Mary Hogan Elementary are significantly under-enrolled. With couples having fewer children, more families are needed to fill the school.
“That is healthy for the community to have vibrant schools and schools that work well, and that would help us from a tax standpoint (as well),” said Tenny. 
And according to Dunakin, the town has done its part to prepare the infrastructure for more residents.
“There is plenty of opportunity for growth and development from a residential perspective that is within proximity to town water and sewer,” he said, pointing out swaths of land off of Washington Street Extension and also off of Seminary Street Extension that have been zoned for high density residential (HDR) development.
With a bigger tax base, property taxes could be expected to decrease with higher density, although not by a lot, according to the findings of Middlebury Planning Commission member Barbara Saunders, who wrote the housing section of the town plan.
Saunders says the main advantage to attracting that demographic would be increasing the cultural and economic vibrancy of the town with that population’s patronage at cultural events and stores, and potentially with their starting businesses.
Planning Commission Chairwoman Nancy Malcolm agreed with Saunders.
“It’s a sector we are trying to bring in for economic purposes, to make it a vital town,” she said. 
According to local lenders, if a qualified homeowner in that demographic is able to find a home and wants to settle in the area for an extended period of time it is to their advantage to buy rather than rent.
“It is a great time to buy, and there are certainly a lot of financing products available to first-time (and all) home buyers,” said Lindsey Wing, a mortgage lender for Prime Lending.
First-time house buyers rarely have the cash available to pay the standard 20 percent down, but even so they have recourse to finance a home, according to Wing. For example, qualified buyers can apply for the USDA Rural Development (RD) loan, which comes with 100 percent financing. Wing estimates that total monthly payments for a $150,000 RD loan including principal, interest, mortgage insurance, and other fees would come to roughly $1,150, around the median rent for a two-bedroom unit in Middlebury. A Fannie Mae (FNMA) loan, which requires 3 percent down ($4,500 for a $150,000 house) would only be a little bit more per month after the down payment. Without the tax breaks and equity gained from owning a house, renting long term could makes less sense for many.
Furthermore, ACCT also has programs for middle-income buyers. Executive Director Terry McKnight touts the Homeland Program, which uses government grants to provide down payment assistance to first-time buyers who make 100 percent of the median income for Addison County ($57,203) or less. ACCT will provide 20 percent of the cost, or up to $40,000 for houses including in developments like Village Glen.
He also pointed out state and federal tax credit programs that provide grants for down payments for buyers who make up to 120 percent of the county’s median income. McKnight says ACCT facilitates up to six or seven grants a year.
With relatively flexible financing options and the housing market beginning to improve in the area, young buyers will have to hope they get lucky like Yuen, Simison and the McDonoughs did.
“We ended up with a house that we love,” Yuen said about her Vergennes home.
Many in Middlebury hope that buyers of their demographic will soon be saying the same about houses in Middlebury, like the McDonoughs.
After finding a place in her hometown, Casey McDonough told the Independent, “Marc and I love being closer to family, especially now that we have our baby, Henry. It’s nice that Henry will grow up in the same town that I did.”
Editor’s note: Reporter Luke Whelan was a summer intern with the Addison

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