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Housing Options For Middle-Income Vermonters Worsen During Pandemic

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Jessica Frisco, right, and her partner Alex Lockie stand in front of the geodesic dome they purchased recently in Dummerston.

Vermont’s housing market, which was tight before the pandemic, has gotten even worse. The number of homes available in Vermont dropped by almost 70% over the past year, according to the Vermont Association of Realtors.

The trend has jump-started conversations about supporting more middle-income housing across Vermont.

State officials have spent a lot of time and energy in recent years trying to convince people like Jessica Frisco to move to Vermont.

Frisco is a director of quality at a behavioral healthcare network. Even before the pandemic, she was working three-days-a-week from home, in New York City.

She first visited Brattleboro two years ago, when she spent a snowy weekend at a yoga retreat with her partner.

More from VPR: The New 'Beckoning Country?' City Buyers Eye Vermont Property As COVID Sanctuary

Ever since, Vermont has felt like a place the couple might want to eventually move to.

And when COVID-19 hit , and all of her work moved online, she figured it was a good time to make the move.

“I think I would have probably stayed there a few more years, if it weren’t for COVID,” Frisco said. “But it just felt like the right time. Like, things were slow in the city. There were other things going on elsewhere, and we just thought of Brattleboro again. Like, a really, you know, cultural, artsy center, a close community, but out in the middle of nowhere, like, in the woods, where we could get away from the city.”

The house hunting in the Brattleboro area was brutal.

Frisco and her partner had to compete with other newcomers to Vermont for every property they looked at.

"It's not like people who moved here with their remote job created the economic problems for working Vermonters ... Those problems existed. They didn't create the housing problem, and if they left, the housing problem wouldn't go away. We can't kid ourselves." - Jennifer Stromsten, Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation

They considered more than a hundred homes online.

But they were snatched up so quickly, sometimes by other people offering more than the selling price, that they only had a chance to look at five properties.

They even went up against a family from Norway at one point.

Eventually they found a dream home; a geodesic dome, down a winding dirt road about a half hour outside of Brattleboro.

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And they were only able to land it after paying $1,000 more than the asking price.

“I absolutely love it here,” Frisco said. “And it’s just nice to feel like we have a place that’s, like, stable, and that’s something we can build on for the long term. And especially a place this unique. It’s going to be hard to find something else that will make us want to move.”

Frisco is hardly an outlier when you hear stories about people who chose to come to Vermont over the past year.

And the flood of newcomers made a tight housing market even tighter.

The average sale price of a residential single-family home increased by about 25 percent over the past year, according to the Vermont Association of Realtors.

Jennifer Stromsten is with theBrattleboro Development Credit Corporation, and she spends a lot of time helping companies recruit new workers.

Stromsten says there was a shortage of housing for working families and individuals even before the pandemic.

“You know, it’s not like people who moved here with their remote job created the economic problems for working Vermonters. They didn’t,” Stromsten said. “Those problems existed; they didn’t create the housing problem, and if they left, the housing problem wouldn’t go away. We can’t kid ourselves.”

Vermont made international headlines when it offered remote workers up to $10,000 to come to the state, and Stromsten says we need those workers.

But when someone with a high-tech job in Boston or New York takes an apartment in Brattleboro, and can pay the higher rent, it puts a squeeze on a real estate market that was already stressed.

More from VPR: Rental Assistance Program Could Help Thousands Of Vermonters Stay Housed

“It’s part of the COVID story, because people can see this,” she said. “They can see the newcomers. They can see the license plates. They can see people in their local grocery store that they didn’t know, and it’s making them ask this question. And it’s spurring this conversation, which is terrific. It’s a terrific opportunity to have a conversation we should be having no mater what.”

The housing situation has gotten so tight in Brattleboro that Zelda Beckford, who accepted a job here recently, ended up living in Amherst, Mass., about 40 minutes away, because she couldn’t find housing nearby.

A woman stands in front of a purple business sign
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Zelda Beckford stands in front of New Chapter vitamin and supplement company in Brattleboro, where she was recently hired as vice president of quality. Beckford moved to Vermont from Los Angeles but was unable to find housing in the state.

Beckford said by the time she got to Vermont, which was during the fall, there was very little housing left to consider.

She said she only got to look at three houses in the area.

“There just wasn’t a lot available,” Beckford said. “Even when I had  talked to the realtor he had like, three listings. I mean ... I really thought that it would be easy, really. Not easy, but I thought it would be easier to find something.”

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Beckford moved here from the Los Angeles area, and she’s used to long commutes. But it’s kind of a drag to not be able to feel like you’re part of the community you’re now calling home.

“I don’t want to have a 40-minute commute to work,” she said. “I’d rather be closer to the operation. And really, that’s the reason I took the position, is because I wanted to move there. But, you know, where I ended up, I actually really, really like; it’s just not in Vermont. It’s like if I could pick this place up and move it to Vermont I would be happy.”

"There's not a lot of homes for sale in Vermont that someone that is making that median wage in their community could afford. And those homes are not being built." - Josh Hanford, Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development.

The number of new homes that are built in Vermont has been steadily dropping since the 1980s. Astatewide housing reportrecently found that in the next five years, about 90% of new homes will be built in Chittenden County, with every other part of the state seeing little or no new home growth.

“There’s not a lot of homes for sale in Vermont that someone that is making that median wage in their community could afford. And, those homes are not being built,” said Josh Hanford, commissioner with the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development. “You know, you can find higher-end homes, you can find some affordable apartments being built and it’s this missing middle, is the term we’re using to define that level of housing that is not being built.”

Hanford says the Scott Administration wants to use about $42 million from the latest round of federal COVID-19 relief funding to support middle-income home building in the state, which he says is somewhere in the $200,000 to $400,000 range.

More from VPR: How Hot Is Northern Vermont's Housing Market During COVID-19?

Hanford says the money could go toward things like helping with permitting or having the state build the infrastructure needed to support more housing.

“You know, looking at this opportunity with new federal money coming in, how can we really address this challenge?” Hanford said. “You know, housing is one of those areas that it is a win-win for everyone. It helps address our demographic challenges. If we want new families to move into Vermont, if we want more diversity in our communities, we have to provide the housing for folks to move to that they can afford.”

The money didn't make it into next year's budget, but housing advocates hope the federal funding can be put towards middle-level housing in the future.

Hanford says the administration thinks the program can spur more than 1,000 new homes to come online over the next few years.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman@hweisstisman.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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