Survey sheds light on Middlebury housing market

MIDDLEBURY — People looking for homes in and around Middlebury overwhelmingly prefer single-family residences, and many believe there is not a good inventory of their favorite type of housing in Addison County’s shire town.
Those were some of the findings of a recent housing survey by Middlebury Planning Commission of area homebuyers and employees of some of the county’s largest businesses. The commission plans to use the results to help guide future planning efforts relating to neighborhoods and residential development.
Middlebury Town Planner Eric Blair said the genesis of the survey dates back to February of last year, soon after he was hired. Local planning officials at that time reported hearing discouraging reports about the availability of housing in Middlebury.
“I think there was the assumption that certain housing needs weren’t being met in the community, so we said, ‘Let’s get a group together and brainstorm,’” Blair recalled.
The planning commission assembled a housing subcommittee to study the issue. That group would go on to meet several times, and ultimately decided during the early spring of 2014 to put together a housing survey, with a focus on workforce and affordable housing. Those putting together the survey included Ken Perine, then president of the National Bank of Middlebury; local real estate professionals Ingrid Punderson and Amey Ryan; Amy Sheldon; Planning Commission Chairwoman Nancy Malcolm; commission members Sarah Peluso and Barbara Saunders; Blair; and Ted Dunakin, Middlebury’s director of planning and zoning.
“It’s like any other resource; you don’t really know how to manage that resource until you know what you’ve got,” Blair said of the rationale behind the survey. “Our take on the housing survey was more about user preference. Are people’s housing needs being met?”
The subcommittee designed two surveys — one for homebuyers, the other for Middlebury employers to distribute among their respective workforces.
“Homebuyers” were individuals described by the subcommittee as having purchased a home in, or near, the town of Middlebury within the past year.
“We were able to go through the Realtors’ database and identify houses that had been bought within a 12-month period, and we looked at anything within Addison County, basically,” Blair said. “If someone bought a home in Bristol or Cornwall, we wanted to ask them, ‘Did you consider Middlebury? Did you buy a home (in another town) because you couldn’t afford Middlebury, or was it your preference to live in Cornwall or Bristol?”
Organizers sent the survey to around 150 homebuyers; around 40 answered
For the employers’ survey, the subcommittee looked at the list of largest local businesses and determined “who could provide the best cross-section of responses,” Blair said. The panel attracted a handful of employers to participate in the survey, with Porter Hospital and Middlebury College being the largest.
The survey was included in the Addison Independent and online through surverymonkey.com.
The employers surveyed garnered approximately 350 responses, according to Blair.
“What’s interesting is that even though the sample size is much larger for one (of the surveys) compared to the other, the percentages match almost perfectly,” Blair said.
Some of the highlights of the homebuyers’ survey included:
•  77 percent of 40 homebuyer respondents said they purchased, or considered purchasing, a home in Middlebury or East Middlebury during the past year. Of those who did not settle in Middlebury, around 36 percent said it was due to personal preference; and 28.5 percent said it was because the housing inventory did not meet their needs.
•  A whopping 84.6 percent of respondents said they preferred single-family detached housing, while 12.8 percent said they preferred condominiums.
•  21.6 percent of respondents said they spent, or would be willing to spend, up to $200,000 for a home. An equal percentage of respondents said their spending budget was in the $250,000, $300,000 or $400,000 categories. Around 13.5 percent cited a housing budget of up to $150,000.
•  A substantial 83.78 percent of respondents indicated there was not a good inventory of their preferred housing type to choose from in Middlebury or East Middlebury.
•  A vast majority of respondents cited the availability of their preferred type of housing, a walkable neighborhood, community amenities, tree-lined streets, and convenient commute time as the top advantages of buying a home in Middlebury.
Some highlights of the employer survey included:
•  Almost 62 percent of the 350 respondents said they currently live in Middlebury or East Middlebury.
•  A slight majority of respondents who said they live outside of Middlebury indicated they commute around 10 miles to their jobs in Addison County’s shire town. Around 40 percent of respondents not living in Middlebury said they are living elsewhere due to personal preference. Another 34.5 percent cited the high cost of housing in Middlebury.
•  82.1 percent of respondents declared a preference for single-family, detached homes, with another 7.9 percent listing an affinity for apartments.
•  As was the case with the homebuyers, a vast majority of employer survey respondents cited the availability of their preferred type of housing, walkable neighborhoods, community amenities, tree-lined streets, and convenient commute time as the most desirable factors in laying down roots.
•  A slight plurality (26.02 percent) said their preferred price range for a home is $200,000. This category barely beat out the $250,000 and $150,000 categories.
Middlebury officials will now determine how to use the survey results in guiding future planning decisions for the community and its town plan, due to be updated by 2017.
For example, Blair said, Middlebury could follow in the footsteps of Bluffton, S.C., which used community survey information in its campaign to promote construction of affordable, energy-efficient single-family homes for the local workforce within clearly defined neighborhoods.
“(Bluffton) has a payment program that allows you to wave certain permitting fees, and allows you to basically finance that home through a whole different funding mechanism,” Blair said. “It’s a unique and creative solution to solving a certain housing problem. This is something I have seen in numerous other communities, being adopted across the country.”
Coincidentally, the Middlebury Planning Commission has been working lately on neighborhood planning. The panel is in the process of identifying Middlebury’s neighborhoods — their specific locations, centers and boundaries. They are also casting about for the locations of future neighborhoods. And Blair stressed that neighborhoods are not synonymous with housing subdivisions. Neighborhoods also possess such features as on-street parking; streetscapes with trees to form a buffer from traffic; and “human-scale” construction.
“(The survey) tells us what people can afford, or think they can afford, and tells us the kind of housing people would prefer,” Blair said. So with the surveys finding an overwhelming preference for single-family, detached housing, it sends a signal to town planners and developers that greatly expanding the communities’ condominium stock might be a mistake.
“It will help guide some of our decisions, if we embark on any kind of a program and in future neighborhood planning,” Blair said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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