Vermont is such an unusual place, the most rural state east of the Mississippi -- in some ways a throw back to the 1800s. We are also a kind of perfect storm situation for many of our residents. A friend once told me a story about her complaint to her town about her real estate taxes. Her new house was not completed. She could not yet live there, and yet the town was taxing her what she felt was a huge amount of money. The Selectboard member she spoke to said, "Here you pay your taxes in order to get nothing. No billboards, no box stores, no heavy industry, nothing!"
That nothing does contribute to making this a beautiful place. It is why, here in Wilmington, three out of four houses are owned by out-of-state folks coming to get away from all the ugly junk elsewhere. There remains the question, though, of that one-out-of-four households, where the family actually lives and works (or tries to work) hereabouts. Therein lies the perfect storm. With so little industry or big business, jobs that pay a housing wage are not readily available. There is work here that pays a living wage for only so many farmers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, retail folk, etc. The intersection between good paying jobs, the cost of decent housing and taxes is such that it squeezes out so many, especially young and old people. They are the most vulnerable ones.
It has been my job for 15 years to find applicants for our Habitat houses. Almost without exception, the applicants did not think of it themselves. They were either too busy to read the paper and know about the possibilities or they believed themselves not to be appropriate candidates. We got most of our best applicants when a grandmother, an employer, a friend, said to them, "Why don’t you apply for this. I think you would be a good fit for that program." I have referred a whole lot of people, when they did not quite fit our demographics, to some of the other relevant options like Windham & Windsor Housing Trust’s Home Ownership Program, Brattleboro Housing Authority, U.S. Rural Development for low rate mortgage possibilities, etc. Somehow people have not heard about these options.
The best applicants for any of these programs usually turn out to be a two income family with acceptable credit. It does not have to be perfect. Of course, if you are struggling along under the weight of two car loans and deep credit card debt, you probably would not qualify -- not because you are a bad person, but because, much as you want to try, you are unlikely to be able to add yet another burden of monthly payments to your life, and be able to sustain it over time. This, of course, is how we got into the mess of the housing bubble and all the foreclosed houses of people who were tempted to get in over their heads. Most families want a home of their own. Sadly, in this economy and in this part of the world, it may not be possible for everyone.
I can tell you that it does not feel good to tell a person with an annual income of less than $25,000 that West River Habitat for Humanity, or probably any of the other Vermont Habitat Affiliates, cannot offer to build you a home, because in this part of the world, you will need every penny of that to cover your mortgage, insurance, energy costs and, biggest of all, your taxes. It is different in other parts of this country and most certainly worldwide. Our local homeowners pay much more in taxes than their mortgage payment. It would be truly nasty to let a family put in all the sweat equity we ask of them to build their own house side by side with our volunteers, and then a year or so later have to foreclose on them because they could not keep up their payments. Small wonder young families move out of state to live where they can earn a housing wage. Seniors living on fixed incomes, especially single seniors, tend to move into Senior Housing where their rents are adjusted to their income.
We live in an exceptional and very physically beautiful environment here in Vermont, but it "ain’t easy" to pull off. All that wonderful nothing carries a not especially well hidden cost. For more information, you can call Windham & Windsor Housing Trust at 802 254-4604, West River Habitat at 802-464-5156, U.S. Rural Development at 802-254-9766, Brattleboro Housing Authority, 802-254-6071.
Claudette Hollenbeck is a retired Social Worker, residing in Wilmington, Board Member of both Windham & Windsor Housing Trust and West River Habitat for Humanity.