Guest editorial: Affordability is key to state’s future

Franklin and Addison counties were the only counties in Vermont to have more people moving in than moving out from 2013 to 2014, according to U.S. Census information. The rest of Vermont saw a population decline in our domestic population, even the state’s economic engine, Chittenden County.
The numbers are net migration figures for our domestic population, which includes births, deaths, and people moving in and out. The decline, as a state, is most noticeable in southern Vermont and the Northeast Kingdom. From April, 2010 to July, 2014 Bennington, Caledonia, Essex, Orange, Orleans, Rutland, Washington, Windham and Windsor counties lost population. Rutland County saw a whopping 1,560 person drop.
It’s a national story as much as it’s a Vermont story. A third of the nation’s counties are reporting more deaths than births and as the world’s population stabilizes mid-century, that will be common around the world. It’s no longer about population growth; it’s about our shifting migration patterns.
This is where Vermont struggles. As our population ages, we’re beginning to see broad changes in the choices people make in terms of where they want to live and for what reasons.
People are moving to where the weather is warm to moderate. They are moving to where housing prices are affordable. And they are moving to where the jobs are plentiful.
According to a story in the New York Times this week, this is a change in our migration patterns, and weather is an important part of the story. In 2014, population growth in metropolitan areas with average January temperatures above 60 degrees was 1.3 percent. Growth in metropolitan areas where the January temperatures were below 35 degrees was 0.2 percent.
Vermont doesn’t have a metropolitan area. And our January temperatures [and February’s] were closer to about 5 degrees.
That’s part one, and unless global warming truly kicks in, we’re stuck.
Part two is housing that is affordable. Comparatively speaking, that doesn’t exist in Vermont. Particularly in Chittenden County. The median price of a home in Fort Myers, Florida is $168,000. The median price of a home in Chittenden County is $261,500. And, as you might expect, the property taxes in Fort Myers are considerably less than in Burlington. There is also an abundance of middle-priced homes in Fort Myers [and numerous other warm climates], and they are scarce in Chittenden County.
Part three is jobs. We’re treading water at best.
The New York Times story makes it clear that affordability is an issue. People are leaving places where it’s expensive to live, to places where their income allows them to live a more affordable life, doing the things they like to do. If that’s a warmer climate, so much the better.
As we know, our student population is in decline and that decline will extend to at least 2030. It’s our retired population that is growing in size, not the number of working age Vermonters. Of those retired, those who can afford to leave [or those who can’t afford to stay] are the ones most likely to opt for warmer climes. They are the ones with the most to gain.
If we are to avoid being anything other than a weekend destination for visitors, it would behoove us to recognize our circumstances and to react accordingly.
We can’t do anything about the weather. But we can start to think about wintertime amenities that might make Vermont more bearable. Instead of reacting as individual cities and towns, it would be smarter to think regionally. Are there indoor recreational opportunities that are affordable, which could also attract growth?
If affordable housing is such an issue, then is there a need to rethink our zoning/planning regulations? 
At the center of this discussion is the need for Vermont to recognize how fundamental the affordability issue is to our future. People are leaving. We are giving them more reasons to leave than to stay. We are not capitalizing on the assets we do have.
It’s also a political discussion. Not in the traditional sense of pursuing policies that drive up expenses [that doesn’t help], but in the sense that our leaders are choosing to ignore it. 
As these census numbers bear out, that’s an option with fairly dire consequences.
Emerson Lynn/St. Albans Messenger

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