Housing. It’s a topic on all of our minds lately. Whether I’m observing online conversations about COVID-related migrations and home prices jumping, debates around how to continue to help our houseless neighbors, or the morality of renovating old spaces into more expensive dwellings, the conversation can quickly become emotional.
I think that’s because so often, issues with housing enter into most of our lives at one point or another, and it can leave deep grooves in our emotional records. The stress of having to search for a new rental in a tight market is oppressive for anyone who is also shouldered with burdens of family, health, work, and relationships. For many, owning a home is no guarantee of security since with that ownership comes the weight of taxes, upkeep, a mortgage, and unexpected major expenses. No one, regardless of where we fall in a socio-economic range, goes unscathed emotionally when housing supply dwindles as the demand is increasing.
The effects of this supply and demand problem ripple into nearly every part of our communities. The lack of available homes creates waves that rock workforce development efforts because workers have so few places to live, which then discourages companies from expanding or investing in Southern Vermont. A promising refugee resettlement program, which would add needed workers and diversity to our region, is threatened by the obvious question, “Where will they live?” The very limited number of multi-bedroom apartments also makes life here impossible for medium to large families, including those with decent incomes. Even those who qualify for housing vouchers cannot stay afloat in these hostile waters, and in Brattleboro there are dozens of state vouchers that go unused for lack of available homes for families. There’s nowhere to go.
These realities represent huge cost-of-living frustrations for so many, and it doesn’t seem to matter what personal politics are involved; we all feel the repercussions in one way or another and it is very easy to lay blame for our housing issues at the feet of others. Struggling renters blame greedy landlords who are charging too much rent. Landlords blame irresponsible tenants in driving up their operating costs. Homeowners and aspiring first-time homebuyers blame out-of-staters for snatching up homes sight unseen and making it impossible for them to afford to move anywhere else. Are there bad actors in these situations? Sometimes, but the core problem is not a few bad landlords, irresponsible tenants, or wealthy outsiders buying houses via Zoom. The core problem is lack of supply.
I hope that we can soon come together from all perspectives to agree on the one essential action we must all work toward: increase the housing supply, and do it as quickly as possible.
Contrary to what some seem to believe, the answer is not to cast judgement on the type of housing that gets built. We need all of it. We need affordable housing. We need mixed income housing. We need apartments added to homes. We need tiny houses built in backyards and driveways. We need apartment complexes, single family homes, and cottage clusters. We need it all to increase supply because when it comes down to the reality of our situation in Southern Vermont, only a supply increase will alleviate our collective stress over our housing needs. What we do not need is endless bickering about what types of housing should be supported by our governments and non-profit institutions, because we need it all.
One of the most frustrating arguments that I see playing out again and again is this idea that everything that is built should be designed to be strictly affordable housing. This view is commendable but completely out of step with the realities of housing markets. The truth is that the most successful strategy for a downtown is to promote mixed income housing. These are the types of construction that we should be celebrating, because study after study has shown that this is the way to successfully build the socio-economic strength of communities. What has been done with the Snow Block on Flat Street in Brattleboro, what will soon be done with the Sanel Building right next door, and the proposal for the Brattleboro Museum project are all examples of this type of housing project, and we need to get behind these efforts because they will benefit us all by rapidly adding units to Windham County. In the case of the Sanel project, the intention is to add 19 mixed income units with many designed for those who make $20k to $40k per year. These are the homes that are needed for people who want to work downtown and choose not to own a car. This has the added environmental benefit of removing a car from the streets while strengthening downtown quality of life.
Any type of new construction adds to our overall supply, and then when someone moves in, that opens an opportunity for someone else to come in to their vacant apartment.
The town of Brattleboro (meaning the municipality) does not build buildings, private entities do. What the town is limited in doing is lifting zoning requirements (as we have been doing for several years) and finding other ways to encourage healthy development for our downtown and beyond. Taxpayers don’t want their government to go into the risky construction business, and they certainly don’t want the town to be landlords. That means finding good partners in our current reality in which we find ourselves. Let’s work together to find all the ways to encourage development of renovation and new construction, because more supply is the way out of this housing crunch.
I will be writing more about housing in the coming months, because the more I look at this issue the more I realize how crucial it is to the resiliency of Brattleboro and Windham County. I hope we can try to resist the human temptation to lay blame around this very emotional issue that hits us all personally, and work together to find all the ways to increase our supply of safe and accessible homes for all.