"The strength of the nation derives from the integrity of the home." Confucius said that a long, long time ago, and it remains the same today. Just about everything starts at home. We all know that in our gut: no home = no security. Home can be a house, an apartment, a trailer, a single room occupancy. What home is not is a tent in the woods, a nest under a bridge, the interior of a car, or a sofa in a friend’s apartment.
Because of tropical storm Irene we are, perhaps, more sensitized than usual to the stories of families struggling to remain housed. But it is not just storms that topple families out of their safe harbors.
Many Vermonters just do not earn a "housing wage." At least 53 percent of Vermont’s occupations have a median wage below the statistical housing wage. If you live now in Windham County you must earn $17.80 an hour in order to afford a 2-bedroom rental apartment and not spend more than 30 percent of your total income to do so. The other 70 percent, according to statisticians, is needed for everything else -- gas, medical, food, clothing, etc. How many young couples just starting out do you know who earn a housing wage; how many seniors? In a two-income family you probably can just about do it, though childcare expenses will eat up a big chunk of that 70 percent. We all know that is why young people are draining out of the state and over time we will become a state of old geezers like me.
When people talk about "affordable" housing these days, it is not just about folks on Welfare. It is now a whole lot of the rest of us. In Windham County 35.7 percent of people pay 30 percent or more of their income to be housed. That is more than 1 in 3. It is the single parent next door or the old fellow down the street. Worse yet, 14.1 percent of that 35.7 percent actually use up 50 percent or more of their household income on housing. I stood talking to a local, single woman when Governor Shumlin came earlier this year.
She used to work at one of the local establishments that got flooded out. I asked her how she had fared in the last two years and she said, "I have to have three jobs in order to make my mortgage." Believe me, this woman is a hardworker, not a slouch. I’ve seen her at work.
The rest of us who have comfortably feathered nests of our own do not easily encounter those who do not. Thankfully, there are organizations with employees who spend their working days fulltime addressing the issues of "home." Morningside Shelter, Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, as well as volunteer efforts like the local Habitat for Humanity affiliates, Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing, and others all focus on rental and home ownership initiatives for that 35.7 percent of our local population.
I have worked for 15 years as a West River Habitat for Humanity volunteer, mostly in finding appropriate families for the four houses we have built so far. (You wouldn’t want me to wield a hammer in your house, trust me). Qualifying folks are all over the place. But nobody thinks they are eligible. We are living in a 19th century mentality here. With property values and taxes what they are and wages lagging so far behind, you cannot make it here without multiple jobs. We need to rethink what is the current local normal. If you are a renter, a housing wage for a 1-bedroom apartment in Windham County would be $13.92. For a 2-bedroom apartment you would need to earn $17.90 per hour.
I was standing outside the Co-op the other day when a young man, and his wife holding their baby, started to open the door to the two floors of apartments Windham& Windsor Housing Trust had recently built over the Co-Op store. I asked them if they lived upstairs (I am also on the W&WHT Board and, let’s face it nosey). They turned radiant smiles on me and said, "Oh yes, and we love it. It is wonderful to live right here in town where we can walk to everything." Without below market rents, this baby might be living quite differently. Organizations like W&WHT have the expertise to tap into multiple federal and state funding sources, pairing them with banking tax credits in order to underwrite clean, safe housing that matches the income level of tenants. It is a win win for everyone.
Taxes get paid to the town, the community has attractive rehabilitated buildings, and babies can grow up in a home, safe and happy. If more than a third of us in this little state need a helping hand, there is no shame in that. People just do not know what is out there and available. For further information you can contact W&WHT in Brattleboro at 802-246-2116, or online at www.w-wht.org.
Claudette Hollenbeck MSW, LICSW, is a retired Social Worker, residing in Wilmington, on the Boards of W&WHT and West River Habitat for Humanity.