Students survey county’s housing crisis
Rent in Middlebury is insanely expensive for a rural area. Some of my friends are paying almost what it would cost to live in New York City this summer, just to live in town.
— Lily Barrett Jones
MIDDLEBURY — If Addison County was experiencing an affordable housing crisis before COVID-19 arrived, the past 16 months have only made it worse. Out-of-state demand for housing in a county that was seen as a safe, healthy place to live during the pandemic has pushed real estate prices further out of reach for the average Vermonter, and the cost of lumber has soared to three and even four times pre-pandemic levels, adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a new home.
Organizations like the Addison County Community Trust (ACCT), the county’s largest provider of affordable housing units, are working hard to alleviate the crisis, but one of the fundamental stumbling blocks to finding long-term solutions is a lack of thorough, accurate data.
Three Middlebury College students are hoping to change that.
Lily Barrett Jones, Mijir Singh and Castin Stone are spending their summer as ACCT interns surveying county residents about their housing needs and collating the results into a report for key decision makers.
“A huge reason we’re doing this survey is because a lot of what we know about affordable housing in Vermont is pretty anecdotal, so trying to quantify that and showing the true numbers of the extent of this problem will be hugely helpful for policymakers and employers in the area, like the college and the hospital,” said Singh, a sophomore from Carlisle, Mass.
Jones, a junior from Edina, Minn., experienced Addison County’s affordable housing problem firsthand this summer.
“Rent in Middlebury is insanely expensive for a rural area,” she said. “Some of my friends are paying almost what it would cost to live in New York City this summer, just to live in town.”
So far, indications are that it will get worse, said Stone, a senior from Bethesda, Md.
More houses might get built, but middle income families (those making 80-120% of the area median income, or up to $84,000 a year) will not be able to afford them, she said.
The internships were made possible by the college’s MiddWorks internship program. That program creates opportunities for students to gain the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in making lasting change, while also working to further the missions of the organizations they serve.
Though they’re working out in the community, the interns are paid by the college.
“That’s important,” Jones said. “Many students can’t afford to take unpaid internships for the summer, and also these small nonprofits and a lot of small companies in Vermont don’t have it in their budgets to fund interns. So the college is crucial in helping Vermont organizations have interns, which I think is amazing.”
This is the first year MiddWorks is offering internships in Vermont, “where it’s really trying to focus Middlebury resources on post-pandemic needs around the state,” said Director of Outreach and Special Projects Amy McGlashan.
The program provided three interns to ACCT out of recognition that “housing is a huge, huge need,” she added.
Anna Burns, who recently joined the ACCT board after working for more than 50 years on housing issues and anti-poverty programs in the mid-Atlantic region, is supervising the student interns.
“Many housing assessments are incomplete,” she said. “Data is too old or people don’t live (in the same state where they work) or they have biases.”
Even the federal census, once considered the “gold standard,” has its flaws, Burns said. And it’s precisely the folks most likely to be served by organizations like ACCT who are most underrepresented in the data.
“Bad data leads indirectly to bad government,” Burns said. “This is a problem all over the U.S., and it’s revolting when you’re a policy wonk as I am.”
The students interns are just beginning to distribute ACCT’s housing needs survey. ACCT has asked some of the county’s largest employers to help the project along by distributing the survey to their employees.
“For people at Porter (Medical Center) and the college, doing us a favor isn’t necessarily at the top of their to-do list, when they have so much going on,” Jones said. “But I think that problem will be solved when I’m able to explain to them that this comes back to benefit them. Providing a more stable and dependable workforce (via affordable housing) in the future is in their best interest in the long run.”
So far, one large county company — Middlebury’s Co-operative Insurance, which has roughly 100 employees — has agreed to distribute the ACCT survey, Jones said.
The team hopes to present its data in mid-August.
“We hope to have a version (of the report) that could be interesting and applicable to general audiences,” Stone said. “We’ll make one for policymakers and their staffs, and then we are definitely going to make one for ACCT so they can better understand the community they’re serving.”
“The kind of housing we invest in makes a difference,” said Vermont Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison. “And data makes a difference in what we invest in.”
And huge investments are coming.
In addition to federal rental, mortgage, utility and weatherization assistance for low-income households, the state has earmarked $249 million in federal COVID relief funding for affordable housing programs.
There are obstacles, Hardy noted. Not only have lumber prices increased construction costs, but there is also a shortage of skilled workers for building projects.
But the state is hoping to bring 5,000 units of affordable housing to market by the end of 2024.
On June 24, during a special session to override three of Gov. Phil Scott’s vetoes, the Vermont Senate passed S.79, an act related to improving rental housing health and safety, which Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint said was long overdue.
“We know we have a problem,” Balint said in a statement after the session. “Comprehensive studies have found that most Vermont towns are ill equipped to have volunteers inspect and enforce rental housing health and safety codes; and thousands of our older housing stock is or is in danger of becoming unsafe and uninhabitable … It’s long past time that we put this system in place to protect our constituents from substandard rental housing conditions.”
IT ALL STARTS WITH A HOME
While ACCT, and organizations like it, can’t satisfy the demand for moderate-income housing, that’s just part of the story, as Jones, Singh and Stone are discovering.
“What I’ve learned so far is how complicated affordable housing and the obstacles it faces are,” Singh said. “I always knew there were challenges, but there are a lot of things you need to think about that don’t come to mind immediately. For example, a lot of people who work for the college live in New York (state). Maybe they’d like to live in Vermont, but even if they found a house in Vermont they could afford, what about child care? What about health care services? There are all sorts of other things you need to consider. Throughout the last couple of weeks we’ve been finding these little things here and there. Aside from the big thing of there not being a lot of housing, it’s like death by a thousand paper cuts.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
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