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New report details local housing challenges

KATIE RAYCROFT-MEYER, a community planner with the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, was the architect of a new housing and population report that reveals a lot about the current challenges of finding a place to live in our area. Independent photo/John Flowers

It’s not so much the number of housing of units; it’s that they’re the wrong size.
— Katie Raycroft-Meyer

MIDDLEBURY — Addison County’s population continues to gray as its school-age population declines, and the ability of this region to get younger is hampered by its the lack of housing stock for low- to moderate-income families.

It’s been a common lament in our area — and indeed the entirety of Vermont — for around 20 years. But now the true dimensions of the county’s housing and population challenges have been condensed into a new Addison County Regional Planning Commission report that can be used by municipal planners, developers and citizens to begin turning the tide on what is fast becoming a crisis.

Katie Raycroft-Meyer, a community planner with ACRPC, spent more than a year carefully compiling the organization’s latest housing and population report, to be a major component of the county’s regional plan. She combed through myriad sources — including the federal Census Bureau, the Vermont Housing & Finance Agency, and state and local media — to get a wide variety of numbers and trends related to who’s living in our area, and where.

“This provides communities with information that’s more of a story; it isn’t just numbers,” Raycroft-Meyer said. “It’s ‘How did we get to where we are now?”

It’s an interesting story.

Raycroft-Meyer found, among other things, that the past two decades haven’t generated an abundance of new homes, as compared to the housing boom of the 1970s. And a big chunk of the existing housing stock consists of large, older homes and farmhouses — many of them occupied by seniors who haven’t elected (due to health or resources) to downsize.

Also, family sizes are smaller than they were 20 years ago, Raycroft-Meyer noted. Households have changed from the conventional nuclear family — two adults and a couple of children — to smaller groupings of couples with one or no children, she said. And there are also more single parents with one or two children.

So the combination of large homes, seniors and small families creates a housing mismatch, according to Raycroft-Meyer.

“It’s not so much the number of housing of units; it’s that they’re the wrong size.”

The county’s housing problem was acute even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Raycroft-Meyer said. The spate of home purchases by out-of-staters during the pandemic hasn’t helped, but isn’t the root cause of the crisis.

“A lot of people are blaming the housing shortage on (housing purchases during the pandemic), as well as pushing prices up,” Raycroft-Meyer said. “But even prior to that, people on our committee were asking, ‘How could we have a housing shortage if our population is going down?’”

She also, during her months of research, learned the important role mobile home parks play in the county’s affordable housing stock. To wit, Raycroft-Meyer found that mobile homes exist in every town but Goshen, representing the third-highest percentage of housing units in the region. In 2018, there were 1,350 mobile homes in the region. Approximately a quarter of these mobile homes are located in the region’s 15 mobile home parks. Addison County Community Trust, a non-profit housing developer, owns and maintains nine of the 15 parks, totaling 340 lots.

Here are some statistics in the population/housing report that bolster the trends that Raycroft-Meyer has been citing:

•  Between 1970 and 2000, the average local household size dropped from 3.4 to 2.56 persons. In 2000, just over one-quarter of the region’s households included a married couple with children. By 2018, the average household size fell to 2.31 persons. For individual municipalities, the average household size ranged from 1.7 to 2.84 persons. The greatest concentration of smaller households is seen in the region’s more densely populated areas of Middlebury village and Vergennes.

•  In 2000 about 25% of the county’s population was school age, while around 11% was over 65. In 2010, the school age population dropped to 16.5% and the over-65 demographic rose to 13%. By 2018, the school age population was 13.3% and the over-65 population was 18.5%.

And the aging population trend is expected to continue, because according to the 2020 Vermont Housing Needs Assessment, the median age of the head of an Addison County household by 2025 will increase from 59 to 61 for owners and remain at 46 for renters. Also, an estimated 36% of all householders in the county will be at least 65 years old and 4% will be at least 85 years old by 2025, according to that needs assessment.

•  The number of households in the region has continued to grow, but at a much-reduced rate than seen 40 years ago. Between 1980 and 1990, there was a 2.2% annual growth rate in households, while a rate of 0.57% occurred between 2010 and 2018. As projected by the 2020 Vermont Housing Needs Study, this rate is expected to continue its decline to 0.18%, between 2020 and 2025.

•  Of the 14,883 housing units in the region, 66.5% are owner-occupied and 24% are rentals. Vacation homes, also considered vacant, can be seasonal or year-round. A 2019 study ranked Vermont number two nationally for the number of vacation homes per capita.

•  The Addison County Region and Vermont have seen a steady decrease in residential construction during the past 40 years. Since 1980, the average annual growth rate of housing units has decreased by 1.38%, dropping to 0.78% during the 2000-2010 time period. Between 2010 and 2018, there has been a slight uptick in growth to 0.92%.

Bridport, Leicester, Orwell, Panton, Vergennes and Weybridge have returned to or slightly exceeded the rates of growth seen in the 1980s, whereas, Cornwall, Goshen, New Haven, Salisbury, Shoreham, Waltham and Whiting have experienced negative rates of growth and the loss of existing housing stock.

•  Counter-intuitively, local home size has increased by 50% since the 1960s. In 2019, the majority of existing housing units in the Addison Region were single family, owner occupied, three-or-more-bedroom homes, often on large village or rural lots. In 2018, 30% of households were one-person, but only 11% of the housing stock was a studio or one-bedroom unit. During the same period, 32% of households were composed of three or more people, but 62% of the housing stock had three or more bedrooms.

“Our current housing stock does not match the current needs of the region,” Raycroft-Meyer wrote in the report. “Since new construction is significantly more expensive (per square foot) to purchase than the existing housing stock, repurposing our existing housing stock is one of the best ways to meet our housing needs.” 

Download the entire draft of the ACRPC housing/population report at tinyurl.com/4twdhbp6.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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