This is the second of a new blog post series exploring promising solutions for addressing our region’s housing crisis, at all scales and in all communities. Not everyone needs to be a housing expert in order to advocate for housing in their community – but Vital Communities and the White River Valley Consortium believe that a broader discussion of housing strategy, with those who know their own communities and their own experiences best, is essential for finding the right solutions. See the whole series here!
Employers Seek Solutions
As the housing crisis looms with unhealthily low vacancy rates and increasing costs, our Upper Valley communities continue to seek solutions. This can feel quite daunting as we see reports of rents increasing 32% since 2017 in New Hampshire, with Grafton County being one of the most expensive counties, and reports that Vermont had the lowest vacancy rate in the US in the first quarter of 2022.
Despite this challenging landscape, Upper Valley community members are coming together to find creative ways to address our housing affordability and availability crisis. In particular, local employers have increasingly turned their attention to housing issues as they grapple with workforce shortages.
The need is acute. Employers across the board are struggling to fill positions. At the Housing Breakfast, hosted by Vital Communities and Twin Pines Housing in June, Dartmouth Health alone noted they have 1,900 open positions. Yet employers are seeing more and more potential hires turning down offers after being unable to find housing nearby. Additionally, with the increase in gas prices, many employees have been rethinking the feasibility of long commutes but lack housing options closer to their places of employment.
With the market not providing what is needed, employers are stepping up to address the housing needs. Measures they are taking include:
- Offering assistance or incentives for housing to help cover deposits, down payments, or overall mortgage costs. A partnership between Southwestern Vermont Health Care and The Bank of Bennington led to the revitalization of a few homes in downtown Bennington that were sold affordably to employees.
- Conveying land or property for housing projects. Mascoma Bank conveyed land, adjusted property lines, provided a right of way, and provided a line of credit to help make Twin Pines Housing’s Tracy Community Housing project happen in West Lebanon.
- Using a master lease to ensure they have housing for their employees. UVM Health Network is taking this approach in South Burlington with a 10-year master lease for 61 new apartments.
Loans for Affordable Housing
In addition, Upper Valley employers have added another solution to the table: the Upper Valley Loan Fund. The idea emerged through discussions of the Corporate Council, a group of key representatives of locally based employers founded by Vital Communities. The council focuses on helping to solve the pressing issues facing the Upper Valley, which include childcare, racial equity, and workforce housing. Keys to the Valley, an initiative by the three regional planning commissions covering the Upper Valley, identified a need for 10,000 new homes by 2030, as well as a need for more affordable homes. Census data from 2020 shows that more than 16,000 renter households in Grafton, Sullivan, Windsor, and Orange counties are cost-burdened, paying more than 30% of their income for housing expenses. This lack of availability and affordability impacts the recruitment and retention of the workforce, which impacts our region’s overall well-being.
Faced with this challenge the Corporate Council took action. They partnered with Evernorth, a non-profit housing and community development organization serving northern New England, to create the Fund. After a feasibility study and bringing in investors, the fund has investments totaling about $9 million from eight employers: Hanover Co-op Food Stores, King Arthur Baking, Hypertherm, Mascoma Bank, Citizens Bank, Bar Harbor Bank & Trust, Dartmouth Health, and Dartmouth College. Investments have a below-market interest rate of 1.5% for a 15-year term. Evernorth hasn’t closed with investors yet, but is scheduled to later in August. The Fund will offer low-cost, flexible financing for projects over the next couple of years. This funding will help leverage an estimated additional $50 million, with the goal of produceing 260 housing units in the Upper Valley, 243 of which will be affordable for households making $13-$25 per hour, or 50-80% of the median income for this area.
This focus on creating affordable homes is crucial. While there are currently over 1,000 units either under construction, permitted, or in the permitting process in Lebanon, Hartford, Hanover, and Claremont, only 70 of those will be affordable to the many rent-burdened households in the area. Ensuring all of our community members have homes they can afford will create a thriving Upper Valley. Indeed, the employers joining the Upper Valley Loan Fund view this not as a benefit solely for their companies, but as a community asset that impacts environmental, economic, and overall community wellbeing and sustainability. We look forward to sharing the projects this fund supports!
To read more about the Upper Valley Loan Fund, check out these Seven Days and Valley News articles. Watch the recording of the June Housing Breakfast or view the slides. Of note, David Duncan and Carolyn Isabelle from Dartmouth Health speak at 5:30 and Deb Flannery of Evernorth speaks about the Upper Valley Loan Fund at 42:40. If you have questions or want to get involved with addressing housing needs in your community, reach out to Vital Communities housing staff, John Haffner (email@example.com) and Ellen Hender (firstname.lastname@example.org),or if you are in the White River Valley, you can email Sarah Danly (email@example.com) to connect with the White River Valley Consortium.