A few numbers on affordable housing problems drew gasps from the 60 people at a Lamoille Housing Partnership’s forum on Jan. 29.
• Realtor McKee Macdonald said rent had “skyrocketed” far above the monthly price of a mortgage.
• Lisa Hagerty, who’s on the Stowe Select Board, expressed dismay that the gap between the income it takes to own a house in Stowe, versus renting there, is so large — a difference of more than $40,000 per year.
Housing is hard to find in Lamoille County, and what’s available isn’t always what’s best for the needs of the people trying to live here.
The housing partnership, which works to construct affordable housing around the county, outlined results of a study it commissioned from Doug Kennedy Advisors, based in Norwich, Vt. The study covered all 10 Lamoille County towns, plus Hardwick.
Doug Kennedy presented hard numbers on where people lay their heads at night, and a panel of Lamoille County leaders identified weak points in the local housing supply and discussed what can be done to bolster them.
Kennedy’s team started with employment and the housing market in Lamoille County to establish who needs and wants to live here.
He found that only 24 percent of people in the Lamoille County workforce live and work in the same town, and 85 percent of people who work in Lamoille County live here, too.
Right now, unemployment in Lamoille County is the lowest it’s been since 2007.
When it comes to housing, 54 percent of the local housing stock is in Morristown, Stowe or Hardwick, with just 7 percent in Waterville, Belvidere and Eden.
Across the county, 15 percent of those housing units are seasonal rentals, but in Stowe, that percentage jumps to 55 percent.
And construction is pretty concentrated, too — between 2010 and 2017, 86 percent of new housing permits were granted in Stowe, Morristown or Hyde Park.
“This is a very, very slow period” in new housing development statewide, except for Chittenden County, Kennedy said.
For his study, Kennedy used the same definition of “affordable housing” that Lamoille Housing Partnership uses — affordable housing costs 30 percent or less of household income.
The median household income in Lamoille County is $52,642, according to Kennedy’s study; equal numbers of households earn more and less than that.
Johnson has the highest percentage of households below the federal poverty line, which, for a family of four, was about $26,000 last year.
Throughout the study area, 13 percent of households live below that line; in Johnson, it’s 26 percent of households.
Throughout Lamoille County and Hardwick, 418 units in 23 projects qualify as affordable, taking the mean income into consideration.
The occupancy rate is 98 percent, and more than half are set aside for seniors or people with disabilities.
He expects the number of households with at least one person over age 65 will increase 19.4 percent by 2022.
“Even if you’re well qualified, it’s a long wait,” Kennedy said. “It’s not something you can just step into when you need it.”
For many people, homeownership costs less than rent, if they can scrape together the money for a down payment.
The median home price in Lamoille County and Hardwick is $220,055. In Stowe, that skyrockets to $447,715, and in Hardwick, it drops to $103,102.
“Rental is the way to get folks here,” but the ladder of homeownership is hard to climb, and without it, apartments don’t free up to allow younger people to move in and start their lives, Kennedy said.
Households are small these days, and so one- or two-bedroom apartments are most in demand.
Kennedy said 32 percent of households are just one person, and 35 percent are two people.
However, just 39 percent of the rental housing stock is one or two bedrooms.
“That’s not necessarily matching up to reality,” Kennedy said, and it’s leaving bedrooms in larger apartments unused while single people or couples live there.
What to do?
Nine Lamoille County leaders were on a panel that batted around ideas for affordable housing reform, reflecting on Kennedy’s findings.
“It’s not a secret the permitting process is a challenge” for housing development, said Graham Mink of Stowe, who owns Green Mountain Management.
But he says that, since rent has gone up in many parts of the county, it “makes it worth it as a developer” to construct long-term rental buildings.
Heidi Scheuermann, Stowe’s representative in the Vermont Legislature, owns more than 90 rental units in Stowe, including the West Branch Apartments on Mountain Road, which has a waiting list and typically takes people with disabilities and seniors.
Scheuermann said when she got into the housing business, she assumed her apartments would be “temporary, and then people would move out on to that ladder rung” and buy houses or rent pricier places.
“That is not the case anymore. These have become permanent housing, because we’re missing those upper rungs.”
Scheuermann thinks tax credits and attractive lending options might encourage more developers to build apartment buildings.
“We need to focus our efforts on encouraging people to build housing at market rent,” Scheuermann said.
Jen Hulse, director of student support services at the Lamoille North Supervisory Union, says the lack of affordable housing has affected her organization, too.
She says about 100 families need housing, and 13 families — with 18 students — are homeless, “with no idea where they’re going to lay their heads at night.”
Mark Frier — who co-owns Tres Amigos and the Rusty Nail and The Bench in Stowe, and The Reservoir in Waterbury, and is on the Waterbury Select Board — expressed concern that, without affordable housing, the local workforce will be weakened.
“The younger workforce is mostly renters, and they’ll just leave if they can’t find a way to afford the area,” Frier said. “We have to start that process and get on that path.”
McKee Macdonald, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Carlson Real Estate in Stowe, said rent is “skyrocketing out of control,” but he hopes attractive lending will help people buy homes.
Stowe’s zoning code allows developers to build 50 percent more units than normally allowed if half the units are affordable housing; Jackman said that’s been used only once.
The town has also eliminated density requirements for housing for seniors.
“We’re trying to create a favorable local economy; it’s just nobody is taking advantage of it,” Jackman said.