Providing housing for employees, while finding housing for yourself, and the added challenge when there are pets.
Housing is a complex challenge, and everyone’s story is different. In this blog series, Vital Communities Housing and Transportation team member Ellen Hender offers close-up views of how our neighbors are affected by current Upper Valley housing realities.
When asked to share their housing stories, Farm & Wilderness’s Executive Director Frances McLaughlin and Sustainable Resources Director Jay Kullman kindly provided their insights as an employer providing housing but also as individuals accessing housing themselves, and they highlighted the specific challenge that pets bring.
Farm & Wilderness has been providing summer camps since 1939 in Plymouth, VT. Their location between ski resorts on the edge of the Upper Valley has created a unique housing landscape for them to navigate. Short-term rentals abound and prices are high. Even with increasing salaries to be well above average for the state, they recognize that it is hard for staff to find the right size and type of housing to meet their needs.
Back in the 1980s Farm & Wilderness built cabins for staff thinking it was a nice benefit that was helpful. Frances says that they now see it as not just helpful, but necessary. “We may think we’re not responsible to think through housing, but we have to because we need people to come to work.” She adds, “Many of the jobs can be done remotely part of the year, but camp is inherently ‘feet on the ground.’” They have about 25 year-round staff of which 25% live in housing provided by Farm and Wilderness. When summer comes, their staff increases to 220 of which they house 200.
Frances joined Farm & Wilderness during the pandemic and notes that she has only seen housing prices get more expensive, even when looking 30 minutes or an hour away. She has also seen housing get more elusive. Ski houses used to be available in the summer, but the market has shifted, including a shift from long-term to more short-term rentals.
Frances stays in one of the staff cabins in the summer but has experienced her own struggles in finding housing the rest of the year. She could not find a place near Farm & Wilderness that took pets that wasn’t an expensive AirBnB. She and her family had to look to Lebanon or Rutland, and even then, their options were limited. She finally found a place in Lebanon where she can have her pets. Frances notes that a lot of her neighbors in Lebanon ended up there not because it was their top choice, but because they couldn’t find anything else, especially places that accommodate pets.
Jay is one of Farm & Wilderness’s year-round staff living in one of their cabins. He also serves on Plymouth’s Selectboard where they recently held a community discussion on housing. Jay and Frances share that Farm & Wilderness had to re-think the housing they provide. They needed to consider whole families, not just single workers, and especially pets. Not being able to have your pets come with you is a dealbreaker for many considering a move for a job, so they adapted their pet policy.
Farm & Wilderness also had to consider the need for electricity and internet access, especially where there is limited cell service. While improving existing infrastructure to provide housing that is truly viable for staff, they’re also focused on sustainability and creating net zero buildings (buildings with zero greenhouse gas emissions).
Even with these updates and all they are providing, it’s a challenge to meet all staff needs. They’ve talked about developing more of their own housing but whether looking at buying existing properties or building new, the costs are incredibly high. Despite the costs, they continue to keep their eye on what’s for sale in the area, ready to consider how they might be able to provide more. But they also recognize that not everyone wants to live on site or in housing provided by their employer, so diverse solutions are needed.
These challenges with housing mean it’s harder for Farm & Wilderness to find and hire qualified people. They have to look further out to find the right person and then have to figure out a housing solution. Unsurprisingly, this means a number of employees have long commutes, and Frances and Jay recognize that this has a significant impact on quality of life and certainly their sustainability goals as well. They also recognize that Plymouth doesn’t have much in terms of services so even living near work will require a decent amount of driving. It’s not a place that developers are eying for building housing for middle to low-income households, so options are limited.
For now, Farm & Wilderness continues to provide what housing they can, prioritizing those who must be on site, as they continue to explore any and all solutions. What they really wish for is a more flexible housing stock overall. As I talk with more of our Upper Valley neighbors about housing, it drives home that what we’re really talking about are people (and pets). And just as people are incredibly diverse, our housing options need to be too.