By Don Keelan
One of the myriads of tasks that the Arlington Area Renewal Project is working on in Arlington, Vermont, is to find suitable housing for employees of local companies. It is a daunting assignment. However, with the assistance of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and NeighborWorks, it should come to fruition.
In essence, what is taking place is that we are seeking homes priced under $75,000 that are in need of substantial repairs. This is where the grant funds from the state and nonprofit come in, as they have with dozens of houses throughout Vermont. The homeowner’s equity, the $75,000 grant and a bank first mortgage, makes it possible for a family to have a home close to where employment is located.
The $75,000 is quite a contrast to what I see every Friday. That is the day the “Mansion section” of the Wall Street Journal arrives. In reading the contents and viewing the photos of that section, I sometimes wonder if I live in a different world.
For example, the edition that was published on Nov. 1, 2019, had the headline, “What You Get for $100 Million.” What the buyer got from the estate of the Broadway producer, Terry Allen Kramer, was a home in Palm Beach, Fla., with 37,500 square feet, a boat dock on the intercoastal waterway, and the ocean. To make the sale, the estate administrators had to reduce the price from $135 million to $110.25 million. Imagine a $25 million reduction in price. I am willing to wager that all the homes sold in Arlington since 2009 would not total $25 million.
Not to be outdone, Ken Griffin, the founder of a major hedge fund trading firm, acquired property nearby for $130 million. There will be a home for him and one for his mother. It will allow him to escape the bitter cold outside of his $238 million penthouse apartment in New York City.
The above examples present a revealing contrast in housing cost for most Americans — and for some observers, the contrast is a real issue, but not for me.
Growing up in Mount Vernon, New York, just after WWII, my family and I had the privilege of living in the basement of a four-story tenement. It was a neighborhood surrounded by other tenement apartments where most of my friends, all first-generation Americans, called home.
My after-school- and weekend-delivery job took me to northern Yonkers and Scarsdale, where I got to see what I thought were some of the largest and most beautiful homes I had ever seen. Some years later, after military service and college, as a young company controller, I got see another set of fine homes in Darian and New Canaan, Connecticut, as well as in Bedford, New York. This had occurred while driving home to Dutchess County, New York, to my family’s “mansion” in the country — our $25,000 three-bedroom ranch-style home.
It never dawned on me to posses any envy for those folks who resided in such expensive homes. Instead, I asked, “how does one get to own and live in such spectacular homes with beautiful manicured lawns?” The answer was simple: the same way that I was able to leave a basement apartment and acquire a home in Wappingers Falls. It took hard work, thriftiness, and the willingness to sacrifice — in my case, driving 80 miles each way to work.
Over the next few months the Arlington Area Renewal Project will be assisting several young families as they move into their first home that they will own. I have confidence that each family will take great pride in what has been accomplished. If someone wishes to spend $100 million or even a quarter-billion dollars on a home, so what?
What is important is to focus on the removal of the regulatory barriers found in banking, zoning and permitting that prevents workforce housing from being built. In addition, to have employment opportunities, that in a few years, a young family can have sufficient income to provide a down payment and handle the monthly debt service.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.