Draft housing study in Bennington indicates upgrade needed


BENNINGTON -- A draft housing study suggests the town's housing stock is not a factor in business' desire to locate here, but that's not necessarily good thing.

The draft was released Monday at a Planning Commission meeting, but because other business had caused the meeting to run late it was only introduced by Bill Colvin, program director of sustainable community development at the Bennington County Regional Commission.

The Planning Commission will discuss the draft in further detail on Aug. 12. In the meantime copies of the draft can be obtained from Planning Director Dan Monks at the Town Office.

Colvin stressed that the study is in draft form and is by no means complete. It was paid for by a municipal planning grant Bennington received in May 2013 and created by his agency and a steering committee. After the Planning Commission reviews it and offers comments it will go to the Select Board for the same treatment. The board can then choose to adopt it and factor it into the Town Plan.

According to the study, two things are clear. One is that housing policies cannot be seen as separate from economic development and education. The second is that the state of the housing market in town is not affecting recruitment or retention of employees for most employers.

"While this second statement may appear to be positive, it was the oft-repeated follow up comment that makes it an issue -- 'because the employees will just live elsewhere.' This sentiment was frequently supported by statements noting a lack of general economic vitality in Bennington, particularly in the downtown area, or by expressions of concern regarding the performance of local public schools, especially at the elementary level," states the report.

Of the employers surveyed, 38 percent reported no complaints about housing from their employees. Those with complaints said most stemmed from rental units, and suggested that was the area of the housing market that needed the most improvement. About half had no suggestions for improving the situation, but of those who did they said three things: First, study the reasons for the high cost of housing compared to wages, second, "Reform social programs that encourage those from out of state to relocate to Bennington," and finally to develop programs and incentives to renovate existing, low-quality housing stock."

The study drew from a number of focus groups that met with the steering committee over the course of several months.

One group was made up of local real estate professionals from Maple Leaf Realty, Hoisington, LM Realty, and Brenda Jones Realty. When asked how the housing market has changed over the past three years, the group said it has stabilized, however listings are up and the market is flooded, meanwhile financing is harder to come by. They noted a lack of competition in rental markets, and that the market for homes valued between $200,000 and $300,000 is challenging. The assessed values of homes are also higher than what they are selling for.

When asked what the barriers are to a balanced housing market one response was a lack of jobs to support a middle class. This was brought up by the other focus groups as well.

Other challenges are that young buyers are shying away because of the age of Bennington's housing stock, and the prices of the homes make upgrading hard. They also said landlords who manage between one and 15 units are having difficulty and are looking to get out of the business.

The real estate group was then asked about common complaints they hear from buyers and sellers. They said sellers tend to have "unrealistic expectations" regarding their home values, while the quality of houses and taxes make sellers turn away. Buyers also expect things to be fixed before they move in, yet sellers do not have the means to pay for the work.

Growing the economy was listed as key to strengthening the housing market, as was raising the quality of the schools. The group said the quality of the workforce is also important, and that incentives to landlords to improve heating systems would help in that regard.

Another focus group interviewed consisted of landlords and developers. Peter Cross, Jon Hale, Milt Surdam, Mac Lewis, Betty Swartz, and Gordon Black acting on behalf of Applejack Real Estate met with the committee, while Sunjit Chwala submitted written responses.

The group appeared to be of two minds on the subject of rental laws. One note suggested the laws are slanted to favor tenants, and that a 14-day notice period for evictions would be helpful. It noted that Texas has a three-day notice law. The notes also said that such laws protecting tenants exist for a reason, as there have been landlords who take advantage of tenants.

They echoed the other groups' calls for a more vibrant economy, saying whatever is done will not help the housing market if the economy is not improved. That said, they would like to see purchase-rehab loan programs become active again and more flexibility from commercial financiers. Other suggestions included extending tax stabilization to cover improvements to existing housing and for the town to strengthen its code enforcement to address issues with absentee or inattentive landlords.

The draft study put forward five recommendations to achieve the goal of improving the town's housing stock: To reverse the trend of renter occupied housing around the central business district; work with area employers to encourage employees to live in Bennington; work with local financial institutions to improve housing conditions; establish tools to be used by the town to improve housing stock; and increase accountability and financial literacy for landlords, tenants, and homebuyers.


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