This essay is condensed from articles written by Kevin Geiger, Senior Planner at Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Planning Commission, and first published in the Vermont Standard, August 12 and 19, 2021
In a crisis, people are able to try new things…are you up to the challenge?
The area’s three regional planning commissions, including the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission (TRORC) based in Woodstock, recognized that the lack of housing was an economic and social crisis even before the pandemic. Together, over the past three years, we have read and listened, researched and written over the last three years on an effort we call Keys to the Valley, since we collectively cover 67 towns in the greater Upper Valley area.
The Keys website begins with our ‘key’ understandings. We begin with the obvious: our housing situation is a crisis. In a crisis, people are able to try new things and jettison old rules that are not helping. The second critical understanding is: a pure market approach that treats housing as a commodity is not going to solve our housing crisis, having in many ways been the cause of the crisis. This is a public problem that demands a public response.
Having looked at the various solutions around housing, we concluded that there are many actions that communities can take, but no single fix. There are silver BBs, but no silver bullet. Some of those BBs are:
- Communities should reexamine their zoning to see if it has needless impediments, but zoning reform won’t be enough, since many towns have no town-wide zoning to begin with.
- We need to keep up and expand the federal housing programs that Twin Pines, Downstreet, Windham Windsor Housing Trusts and other use to help build affordable units, but they are dwarfed by the problem and can’t address all of the issues.
- We need to be able to easily let people age in their homes that have grown too large by sharing them like the Thompson Senior Center is pursuing with Homeshare.
- And we will need to get creative. There is no reason, except our preconceived limitations, that towns can’t directly take part in providing housing. Why should a town’s role stop at providing the road, emergency services, sewer, and water to your lot? It is a public matter if your police office or plow driver can live in town or has to drive thirty miles when you need them. Hence, their ability to find a home is also a public matter. Towns probably do not want to manage housing, but they can be a key actor in literally creating the homes we need.
Businesses can also be part of the housing solution. The Woodstock Inn, Northern Stage, and Dartmouth College, among others, already own properties to house staff, because if they did not they would not have a stable workforce and could not operate. In Vermont, Bennington’s hospital buys and renovates derelict homes and sells them to staff. They lose money on each one, but they save much more by not losing staff.
At TRORC, we have also learned that a lot of housing solutions involve more than just the literal home. Many of our residents need support and assistance in some way. A variety of social service agencies keep people in their homes by providing nursing or treatment services. Other organizations house those of us needing help with addiction or reentering society after prison. Keeping a person housed is a primary part of keeping them healthy — and caring for a person’s health is not just a private matter, as we have seen in glaring display for the last 18 months.
It doesn’t take a pandemic to throw a stable home into chaos. One car repair that eats up the rent or frozen pipe can put in jeopardy the place you come home to. And if your home has a problem, you have a problem, and that translates to your employer having a problem. Pru Pease over at Work United has run an employer-sponsored housing that helps employees tackle day-to-day housing challenges. Businesses pay for the program and workers stay on the job more, since they are not out dealing with a busted furnace. The program even helps some become homeowners. This program needs to expand to many more businesses. Yes, it will cost money, but it will save more.
Which brings us to money. Tackling housing issues will require money. Some of that will be just a cost of doing business, some will be philanthropic, and some will be from taxes that support public programs. TRORC will be working with legislators this year to see how property taxes and other laws can be changed to incent creating more homes that are affordable. Those discussions and others will be challenging, but one of the beauties of a crisis is nothing is off the table.
No one should think we have to exchange Vermont for some bleak landscape. The scale of the solution will hardly impact what we love so much about our communities and rightly want to preserve, if we are smart about it.
We don’t simply need thousands of homes, we need thousands of mainly small homes, many of them rentals, in the right place for the right price. Nationwide, household sizes are steadily shrinking, with 70% having two or fewer people. The demographics of the region, and especially in towns such as Woodstock, are even more skewed toward smaller households, with many just one person. New housing production has largely ignored this trend as house sizes have gone in the other direction.
Also, our population is also aging fast, with over 40% of Woodstock’s population 65 or older. This cohort of elderly residents will expand in the decades ahead. People should be able to stay in their home communities and share their wisdom and talents. For that to happen we need homes that are one floor, accessible, and without large yards to tend or driveways to slip on. For the people we need – younger families with kids whose parents can fill local jobs – affordable rentals and starter homes in all forms are required if we are to turn around our population decline, save our schools, and keep the economy going.
Fitting new homes to smaller households will mean most of these will be apartments, accessory dwellings, and other forms. Talking of apartments may conjure images of soulless hulks, but one just need visit any of the affordable projects going up Hartford or Claremont to see that apartment buildings can be functional and stylish. In villages, accessory dwellings can wonderfully fit into all sorts of niches and bring needed residents and liveliness. In our more rural areas, projects that look like a farm or even are a farm, such as Harding Place in Pomfret or Cobb Hill in Hartland, dispense with the notion that multi-family structures can’t fit in our landscape.
The freestanding single-family homes that many will still want should be smaller as well. Smaller homes require less energy to build and heat and less land, which makes them more affordable. This may go against a mythic norm of a large house out on a large lot, but that cultural norm is only recent and fits neither the real people we have, the families we need, or the issues that suburban sprawl has caused to our landscape.
We hear daily in the news that our landscape is not infinite, and can be lulled into thinking that what seems like a gentle hand upon the land so far in Vermont has avoided these problems. We have not. The state continues to lose remaining wetlands and to pave over fields. Forest fragmentation is a huge threat to our forest products industry, wildlife, and the corridors species will use as their habitat shifts northward. Remote lands in Bridgewater, Barnard, and Pomfret have some of the last meaningful links between the forests of the Green Mountains east to the White Mountains, and north to the spruce forests of the Northeast Kingdom. A few unwise developments would sever that connection.
It can be easy to feel that we have to spread out, that our villages and downtowns are all built. That is simply not the case. At the Keys to the Valley website, we looked at just a sample of neighborhoods to see how much housing can be added, all while keeping in scale with existing development. We found that such opportunities abound, and even made some pictures as examples. Repurposing our old buildings and filling in blanks in our core areas will save money, greenhouse gas emissions, and mean that costly infrastructure such as roads and sewer lines are more efficient. And such development helps lessen future flooding as well. Just ten percent of a watershed becoming roads and buildings destabilizes our rivers.
Does such smart use of our lands just happen by itself? That would be nice, but it does not. It happens when those are the rules. Most development never sees a federal permit or Act 250, which means that most of these rules are not written in Washington, or even Montpelier. They are written by your local planning commission in full public view. But there is no cookie cutter. Each place can craft a solution that works for it. Towns, businesses, and residents can decide they are up to the challenge of helping to provide the most basic element of a safe and affordable home, and do so in a way that also respects our wonderful land.