Maple Street, Stowe

Representatives from the private, public and non-profit sectors celebrated Tuesday with a ribbon cutting marking to opening of nine new affordable housing units on Maple Street in Stowe.

At a ceremony celebrating the construction of nine new affordable apartments on Maple Street in Stowe, one of Vermont’s least affordable towns, a new tenant said this is the first time in two years she’s had stable housing.

The woman, who asked not to be identified by name, told the gathered crowd she had most recently been living in a motel room at The Golden Eagle Resort for the past two years, after an abusive relationship forced her from a previous home.

“Now I can start my life over and not have to worry about the things that we all take for granted,” she said.

One down, 531 to go.

That figure is the number of applications Lamoille Housing Partnership has for seven available partnership-owned units around the greater Lamoille County area, according to partnership director Jim Lovinsky.

Lovinsky, along with dozens of other people from various community and social services organizations, participated in a recent housing summit at Jenna’s House in Johnson — and on Zoom.

The June 3 summit, “Housing for Vibrant Communities” explored the connections between housing and economic development and the role of towns in collaborating with neighboring communities to advance housing solutions.

Lovinsky said prior to the pandemic, the housing partnership might find itself with 200-250 applications from people trying to find housing. As of the end of May, there were 531 competing for seven open units, out of roughly 300 apartments the housing partnership manages.

Lovinsky said he heard a voicemail from a pregnant 20-year-old woman, speaking through her tears.

“The place she’s living in is being sold. She’s not going to have any housing. She doesn't know what to do,” Lovinsky said. “We field questions like that a lot. It used to be that we would sometimes get a call. Now we get calls all the time. People are really disturbed about this and don’t know what they’re going to do.”

He said the types of people seeking housing run the spectrum from retirees — he said he’s heard Vermont will have more people over 65 than under 18 in the next decade — to workplace housing to try and attract younger people to the state, to “a homeless population who needs to be housed.”

Then there’s what he called “the missing middle,” people who are looking to buy a house in a market where there’s limited housing and overly inflated prices.

Role of government

During the summit, Stowe town manager Charles Safford said the town plan supports affordable housing and the zoning bylaws allow for significant density bonuses “but they are rarely, if ever, taken advantage of.”

Safford suggested government needs to play a larger role, whether it’s through financing construction and therefore controlling costs through deed restrictions and other measures that limit the amount of home value appreciation a homeowner is allowed when selling.

He acknowledged, however, that there’s little towns can do alone to provide affordable housing, because “the vast majority” of property taxes raised in a town goes to the state education fund.

“It’s all a competition for resources, and at the end of the day, municipalities often find themselves with little fiscal capacity to take on other major initiatives,” Safford said.

Johnson town administrator Brian Story said the town faces a “very chicken and egg scenario,” in which there is a high turnover in the projects the housing partnership has in town — 28 of them, the bulk of which make of the 24-unit School Street Apartment complex — combined with a lack of social services.

Story said that “makes us a less palatable community” for funding agencies to consider when it comes to financial assistance for new projects.

Regional planners say other limiting factors are towns’ water and wastewater infrastructure and lack of zoning bylaws — most Lamoille County towns don’t have them, said Melanie Riddle of the Lamoille County Planning Commission. She said regional planning commissions act as an intermediary between state and local government.

Act 250, Vermont’s land use law, is a major hurdle to providing adequate housing, said Patrick Ripley, executive director of the Lamoille Economic Development Corporation.

Ripley cited a recent revelation by the Vermont Housing and Conservation board in a VTDigger report that part of the reason $370 million the Legislature appropriated to address housing “hasn’t moved the needle” is because the funds require quick housing start turnarounds. The housing and conservation board representative said it takes at least two, maybe three years for housing to get permitted, financed and constructed.

Higher demand, higher costs

Alison Caldera, with Capstone Community Action, said there are currently more than 50 people in Lamoille County living in hotels, 20 of them children. She said Capstone attempts to provide “the tools in the toolbox, in order to be able to find a place to live.”

Caldera said being able to provide the ancillary services, whether its fuel or food assistance or camping equipment isn’t enough when the end goal doesn’t exist.

“We’ll get them through the process, but we can’t get them any further because there is no affordable housing,” Caldera said.

Grant Wieler, a real estate agent and member of the Lamoille Area Board of Realtors, said not only is the market “underbuilt,” but it’s old. He said 1981 is the median year a home was built in Lamoille County, and new housing growth “has been really stagnant from 2000 to present day,” with only 15 percent of the homes in the county built in the past 20 years.

Wieler placed that alongside data that shows the county gaining population.

“Certainly, our county’s growing, and we’re not building to keep up with that,” he said. “That’s putting additional pressure on our current supply of available homes as they come on the market, thereby raising prices.”

The pandemic made things worse, Wieler said. He pointed to lumber prices over the past four years, noting in February 2020, a month before the pandemic was officially declared, the cost was $450 for a thousand board feet. Two years later, it was $1,400 for the same length.

It’s well known that the pandemic has inflated home prices — Wieler said from 2016-2018, the median sale price of all family homes and condos in Lamoille County was $242,000. Two years later, that increased 12 percent. However, in the past two years, housing prices jumped 46 percent.

Safford said the average price of a home in Stowe — not just houses, but condos — is over $1 million.

“Developers are faced with high costs of land, labor and materials, so they are inclined to build more expensive housing in order to obtain a return on investment,” Safford said. “There is also an unlimited demand for housing, so homebuyers are not just competing with other local and state buyers. They’re competing with buyers from major metropolitan areas within New England and beyond.”

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