By Don Keelan
Addie Lentzner and Erica Jansch are not experts on residential housing development. How would they be? Addie is a senior at Arlington Memorial High School, while Erica is a freshman at Bennington’s Mt. Anthony Union High School. According to Greg Sukiennik’s piece in the July 14, 2021, Bennington Banner, they are advocates for housing the homeless. More specifically, they are requesting Governor Scott’s administration to extend the motel housing benefits for those folks who currently have no place to live once their motel housing vouchers come to an end if they haven’t already.
Lentzner and Jansch join Executive Director Stephanie Lane of the nonprofit organization Shires Housing, who is also in the news advocating for affordable housing throughout Bennington County.
According to the Banner, on July 13, Lane and several community and state leaders celebrated the renovation of 27 local rental apartments. It was a 10-month project that cost approximately $6.3 million. On a per-unit basis, it was $233,000 just to rehab a unit.
The two high school students must have been pleased with the July 17, 2021, press release by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. According to the Rutland Herald, the board announced the $53.8 million allocation to acquire, fix and build 389 housing units. About 221 will be to house homeless individuals and families or those at risk of becoming homeless.
A number of the projects mentioned in the VHCB’s press release are former motels that will be converted to residential housing units. To meet the homeless segment of Vermont’s housing crisis, it will take a lot more than 221 units. But it is a start.
Homes for the homeless are not the only housing concern. The severe shortage of workforce housing is the most perplexing root cause of why businesses, nonprofits and government agencies have been unable to hire employees. The shortage of labor to build workforce housing only magnifies the problem of building such housing, not to mention the shortage of materials, long delays, as well as the double-digit run-up in cost.
And even if the housing problems did not exist, would there be a boom in workforce housing development? No. But why?
If Vermont communities really wanted to add residential housing units to their existing stock, why haven’t such communities changed their zoning laws, approved timetables, and developed a welcoming attitude to provide for new housing opportunities?
The municipalities surrounding the ski areas of Stowe, Ludlow, Killington, Stratton and Dover welcome home development that has price tags in the multi-millions. But why aren’t all areas of Vermont open to multi-family housing subdivisions? I dare say that I would be skewered if I went to the Arlington, Vermont Planning Commission with a proposal to build a 150-lot housing subdivision. Yet, the vast majority of employees at Arlington’s Mack Molding and Sunderland’s Orvis headquarters must travel great distances to work in these towns.
In December 1988 (yes, 33 years ago), I wrote a column for the Manchester Journal titled “Eerie Town With No Young People.” The column’s point was the lack of affordable housing for young people in Manchester, Vermont. Here is a quote from the 1988 column: “Housing had to be priced between $50,000 and $80,000 for it to be obtainable (based on annual income then of between $15,000 and $35,000).” The average Vermont home price today is $394,000, according to a recent Banner article.
Another point from 1988: “As the National Association of Home Builders have often stated, ‘Where will our children live?’” Not in the Northshire; we did not want to provide for them. So, is it any wonder that our state’s public-school enrollment since the mid-’90s has decreased from 110,000 to 78,000 students? Gov. Phil Scott notes that the state would welcome 30,000 new residents. This translates to a need for thousands of housing units in addition to the hundreds for the homeless.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.