Housing market tight for young and old

Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series looking at what the shrinking percentage of younger people in Vermont means to the future of the Green Mountain State. Read the first two parts here and here.
ADDISON COUNTY — For many of those concerned about Addison County’s aging population, one solution seems evident: more housing.
Specifically, affordable housing, or housing where young families and empty-next seniors with low or fixed incomes can live without spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
Increasing the amount of affordable housing would allow the county’s growing number of aging seniors to downsize and live within their means, and it would also attract younger residents with limited budgets, according to Bristol Town Administrator Valerie Capels (pictured).
“Especially as our population is aging, people who have larger homes need to downsize into smaller, more manageable homes,” she said. “We need housing for young families, we need housing for our aging population and we need housing for our workers.”
Adding more affordable housing to local communities is complicated, especially because Addison County lacks sufficient housing across the income spectrum. According to data collected by the Vermont Housing and Finance Agency, in 2016 Addison County has a 4.2 percent vacancy rate for rental housing.
With very few apartments and homes open for new tenants or owners, there is very little incentive for landlords and home sellers to keep prices down.
Elise Shanbacker, the executive director of the Addison County Community Trust (ACCT), said that her organization has a long waitlist for the affordable housing they manage. ACCT currently owns or operates 228 units in multi-family rental properties, 340 units in mobile home parks and 78 single-family homes. Their waitlist is 117 households long, representing 171 individuals waiting for affordable housing.
The lack of housing has caused many to overspend in order to have a place to live. According to 2016 data collected by the Vermont Housing and Finance Agency, nearly half of all renter households in Addison County are paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing, with 20 percent paying more than 50 percent of their income on rent.
One major barrier to building more affordable housing for seniors and young workers is the high cost of construction. Samantha Dunn is a developer at Housing Vermont, a non-profit group that develops affordable housing across the state. Dunn said that the cost of labor and materials is higher now than it has been in a long time.
“Normally construction costs increase 3 percent annually in Vermont and right now we’re seeing a 5 or 6 percent increase every year,” she said. “The primary reason for that is pressure in the labor market. When the recession happened a lot of people left the construction labor market and they didn’t come back.”
Dunn explained that while this is a positive thing for laborers because wages go up, it does make it harder for developers to build affordable housing because they need to earn back those additional building costs.
According to Shanbacker, the cost of construction has driven up rents beyond what low-income families can afford.
“For a private developer to make money on housing, they usually have to charge $1,500 a month for rent on average,” Shanbacker said, adding that that the recommended monthly rent for a full-time minimum wage employee in Vermont is closer to $600 a month.
Shanbacker said that one solution could be for developers to put in more units to offset high building costs, but that it is often difficult to do so in smaller communities given zoning policy and infrastructure concerns.
Dunn explained that zoning regulations in rural towns usually limit the number of units per acre, which makes it more challenging for developers to start projects.
“Many communities have a maximum density on a building lot of four units per acre, which doesn’t really work for affordable housing,” she said.
Kris Perlee, the zoning administrator for Bristol, Monkton and Panton, said this concern comes up frequently in his line of work.
“One thing we hear all the time is we want to keep the open land in our rural communities,” he said. “And if we want those open spaces we eliminate development opportunities.”
Still, Perlee said that Bristol recently revised its town plan and zoning laws to give incentives for more development, which could lead to more affordable housing. He believes the bigger problem is the time and expense of the state permitting process.
“If the state could figure out a way to either fast track or mitigate the permitting process to make it more cost effective for the developer, I think it would make it more affordable to build,” he said.
Perlee also pointed out that in communities without adequate water and wastewater systems, developers also must take on the additional infrastructure costs. This makes building affordable housing, or simply including affordable units in a larger development, that much less feasible.
There are steps towns can take to make it easier to increase their stock of affordable housing. Dunn recommended that towns create task forces devoted to advocating for affordable housing.
“A lot of times when you build affordable housing there are locals who oppose the project because they are not comfortable with that change, so having a local champion is really important,” she said.
Shaun Gilpin, a housing policy specialist at the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, agreed, and added that towns should reach out to developers to learn more about the problems they face.
“Reviewing local zoning and bylaw regulations, and how they are affecting the housing market, is a good idea,” he said. “It’s important for a community to identify their need and create a vision for how they would like to address it.”
Shanbacker (pictured) also suggested ways for individuals to promote more affordable housing in their communities, including by donating to ACCT.
“About 5 to 10 percent of our budget relies on community contributions to manage the properties we have and build new ones,” she said. “Donations help ACCT access federal and state grants to offset construction costs, allowing us to charge rents that average only about $800 per month — including heat.”
She also said locals can communicate to town leaders that affordable housing is important to their constituents.
“Every five years towns are required to update town plans and they hold public meetings about what people think is important,” she said. “Getting language in your town plan about affordable housing is important.”

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