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The housing crunch~ RH May 30, 2015

RH Opinion | Commentary
The housing crunch
May 30, 2015

A new report shows that Vermont is the 13th most expensive state in the nation for rental housing. It is one of the economic difficulties that makes the economic recovery now under way difficult for many people to appreciate.

One of the reasons for high rental costs is that 70 percent of the housing in Vermont is owner-occupied, meaning that rental housing is in short supply. The state has a vacancy rate of only 1 percent, which is a sign of how hard it can be for a renter to find an affordable home to rent.

The report, released by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, finds that a Vermont renter needs to make $20.68 an hour to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment. That benchmark varies from county to county. In Rutland County, the wage allowing for the rental of a two-bedroom apartment is $17.38. In Burlington it is $25.45. In Essex County it is $13.75.

Vermont is unusually expensive for a state with no large metropolitan areas. The most expensive states contain cities such as Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia or Honolulu. Hawaii is the most expensive state of all, followed by the District of Columbia and California.

The affordability of housing in the state has long been a concern of our political leaders. For former Gov. James Douglas, housing was part of what he called his “affordability agenda.” Affordability is also a word that figures prominently in the rhetoric of Gov. Peter Shumlin. Republicans and Democrats tend to back different responses to the problem.

Republicans generally talk about the need to relax regulation in order to speed the construction of additional housing to free up the market and create options. Democrats talk about the need to support organizations working to develop affordable housing where the market has failed to do so. They also promote incentives for the development of housing in desirable locations, such as our downtown centers.

More housing construction is necessary, though most Vermonters are probably reluctant to sacrifice regulations protecting the environment in order to achieve that aim. Continued contributions from low-income housing groups are also essential and have helped smooth the rough edges of the housing crisis, but government funds are limited and rents have remained high despite the positive contributions of housing groups around the state.

The housing numbers reflect the broader problem of an economy that is working against the middle class. In many parts of the nation areas that provided good housing for solid middle class people are now priced out of range of the middle class. In an earlier day, a middle class neighborhood might have been home to a teacher, a shopkeeper, an insurance salesman, an engineer, a factory foreman. In some of those high-cost states, houses in those same neighborhoods now sell for a million dollars. The teacher has to look elsewhere.

In Vermont, housing pressure comes from out-of-state house buyers seeking to buy second homes, or from a crowded student population in Burlington. In other areas, the problem is the prevalence of poverty. Housing is relatively affordable in Rutland, but incomes tend to be low. As the middle class has come under siege, poverty has grown.

Rutland has begun to address the issue with the help of Project VISION. One of the aims of the project is to focus on neighborhood betterment, especially in the northwest neighborhood where derelict housing has degraded neighborhoods. By cleaning up the housing stock, good, affordable units become available, enlarging the rental options and improving the neighborhood.

The economic trends that have caused the middle class to shrink have had a more punishing effect on those struggling to reach the middle class. All the individuals and families who make less money than is necessary to pay for decent housing have to scrounge to find a livable home and often find themselves one misfortune away from crisis. It is all part of the larger trend that comes under the label of economic inequality, a trend years in the making and requiring years for a needed course correction.

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