Vermont Public is independent, community-supported media, serving Vermont with trusted, relevant and essential information. We share stories that bring people together, from every corner of our region. New to Vermont Public? Start here.

© 2024 Vermont Public | 365 Troy Ave. Colchester, VT 05446

Public Files:

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact or call 802-655-9451.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kate on class divides in Vermont and how to scrape enough money together to buy land

An old bus converted to apartment, in a field
Erica Heilman
Vermont Public
Kate has lived in a bus in Central Vermont as she saved up money.

"What class are you?" It's a question that Vermont Public reporter Erica Heilman has been asking people for a series about class and cultural divides that we are publishing all week.

In this installment, Erica speaks with Kate, a 43-year-old who lives deep in the woods in Central Vermont, and, for some legal reasons, was granted anonymity.

Note: This story was produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio.

Find the other installments of the "What class are you?" series here.

I followed Kate along a snowshoe track through the woods to her cabin. Kate is part of a community of young people here in central Vermont — or younger than me people — who live frugally, and often communally, in yurts, and tents and buses. Kate lived this way for 20 years, saving up money to buy this piece of land. When I asked her what class she is, she said, lower middle class by unconventional means. Here's Kate.

Kate: "The most important part of this story is that for the last 15 years of my life, I have never paid more than $200 in rent. And it's changed my life. Like I'm here, I was able to afford land, because I saved a lot of money, like I work pretty full-time. So it adds up."

Erica: "Why was the rent so low?"

Kate: "Honestly, by the good graces of some wealthy people, some of whom live in the area, and some of whom are out-of-state, I had a neighbor who let me live in a farmhouse for $200 a month, because she believed in what I was doing at the time, which was farming. I have worked, traded and lived in a bus and helped out an old Vermonter on their land, you know, to help them be able to stay there longer.

"I really wanted to live in the woods in a cabin. And the only way I could do it was having people be nice enough to offer me a spot. And there's probably 20 people within three miles of us who are in similar situations to mine, who folks with means have been generous enough to say, 'Hey, put a yurt on my land.' 'Yeah, you can keep your sheep here and build a little cabin.' Who are totally fine with maybe paying the taxes on that structure for some work trade happening. And I feel pretty psyched now. Now that I own land, to also be able to do that with my buddies, that they can live here and hopefully acquire enough money to buy their own place someday, or just afford their medical bills or whatever."

Erica: "So why should you profit off of wealthy people, who were your sort of benefactors?"

Kate: "I think the better question is, how did those benefactors acquire all that wealth, and who have they profited off of? It's not just that a class war is going to happen. We've always been in a class war and the elite have been winning. They have been thumping us. So for me, not that I'm owed this, but it's a way for people to feel better, a way for people to help out a neighbor, and a way for folks with means in Vermont to help facilitate a Vermont that they want to see. I grew up in Vermont, a lot of my buddies grew up in Vermont, but we can't actually afford land here if we're paying $1,200 to have a crappy apartment in Montpelier."

"We can't actually afford land here if we're paying $1,200 to have a crappy apartment in Montpelier."

Erica: "So what do you have after 20 years of saving money this way? What is the circumstance of your, of your living now?"

Kate: "So my partner and I live in a very small cabin, and we're half a mile in the woods, which means all winter, we don't get plowed, because that would be outrageously expensive, so we just walk in. And we don't have any running water. And we only — we don't have backup heat, so we only heat with a wood stove. We generate our own electricity with the solar panel, we cut down our own firewood. We don't have any costs a month on this land."

Erica: "Can you introduce us to the community of people who are living this frugally?"

Kate: "So I think in Vermont, since the 70s, with the back to the land movement, there has existed in Vermont, a population that wants to prioritize living a good life versus the rat race. A lot of the people around here who are living in tents and Airstreams and tiny cabins on other people's land — part of that dream is that they don't have to work 40 hours a week, that they can work 10 to 20 hours a week. And also have time to work for the nonprofit that they're really psyched about, hang out with their friends, hang out with their family, that they're prioritizing things other than accumulating wealth."

Erica: "Is there class resentment even in this community? Do you find that that is simmering underneath in some subtle way?"

Kate: "Yeah, there are definitely those feelings."

Erica: "And that's as much as you want to say..."

Kate: "Yeah, it's like such a tender spot for people. And there's that envy. Especially now, I think most of us here dream of having our own spot. And now it seems really unattainable. And so yeah, you definitely have that resentment.

"And I think it starts to become evident who grew up out-of-state, and whose family has the means to help out with a down payment. You know, if you have family in Jersey or Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, they're just making more money than people in Vermont are making. And you started to see the folks who are — people started to peel off in their 30s. And definitely, folks who had the means to in their 30s were starting to buy property, I think, especially once 2020 happened, and there was no available real estate all of a sudden, and everything was just getting bought up from out-of-state sight unseen. I mean, I think that was a terrifying moment for everyone who didn't own land in Vermont and hoped at some point to own land in Vermont."

Erica: "There is a surge of people coming to the state. What do you think you'd want them to know?"

Kate: "I think the thing that newcomers should know is that the person who's checking you out of the co-op might also be living at the local representative's house in a yurt, that there's a lot of cross-culture relationships, a lot of cross-class relationships. And we take care of each other. That if you come here as a wealthy person, and just want to isolate on your extremely long dirt driveway, it's just not going to help out the state."

Erica: "Are you going to get old in this place?"

Kate: "I really hope so. Erica, I really hope so. It's hard loving Vermont and knowing that if you stay here, you just have to watch it change. I just hope that it can change for the better. "

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message.

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
Latest Stories