We Upper Valley communities say we want young people to move here. But where do we expect them to live? A series of purposeful community conversations seeks to build generational ties that could help us find housing solutions.
“A 20-something building their life in the Upper Valley today faces a very different economy and housing market than 30 years ago,” says Meghan Asbury, who is entering her third year as a resident of White River Junction and is a staff person at Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission. “My personal experience with housing in the Upper Valley has been incredibly stressful. I have community, but I don’t feel that I have made a home for myself yet. Every year renters fight over extremely overpriced housing that is in poor, often dilapidated, condition. My first year was a studio that lacked proper insulation. Now I am in a moldy, falling-apart house. Both charge $2,000+ per month for rent. This state claims to need young people and workers but is not doing anything radical to help us access existing housing or create new housing right now. It does not feel like Vermont wants me to stay.”
She added, “To keep our communities strong and continue supporting each other, our solutions need to evolve as the challenges do. The market is not going to solve this problem itself. I think the housing shortage is going to come down to community and empathy, because it is completely possible to construct housing in existing villages and downtowns if a community is on board. We need established Vermonters to be willing to accept some change to their villages and landscape so that renters can afford to stay, and communities can thrive.”
Meghan is among the participants in the White River Valley Consortium (a collaborative network 14 White River Valley towns for which Vital Communities provides staff and administrative support) organizing a series of facilitated conversations among people of different generations within the same community to develop relationships and understanding they can later bring to addressing community challenges like housing. The format was developed with the help of Beth Tener of New Directions Collaborative, a New England-based consulting firm. So far this fall, the format has been piloted in Tunbridge and Royalton.
The meetings have grown out of a generational divide that the consortium team sensed in a recent forum on climate change readiness. Wrote New Directions’ Beth Tener, “In broad strokes, young people struggle to find affordable housing. Older people and longer-term residents tend to resist new construction and housing for renters and people with lower incomes.” Tenner suggested that the consortium hold meetings in specific towns and bring together a healthy mix of people under 30, between 30 and 50, and over 50. At the event, get people to talk about what it has been like to make their home in the town, and discuss this in groups of people their own age and then with a mix of ages. In addition, they gave participants gift cards for a local business where they could have coffee with someone they met at the event.
The responses to the pilot events has been encouraging. Participants offered the following comments:
“We let people express themselves. We didn’t go in with an agenda or demand solutions right away; the point was to make space for people to talk with each other.”
“The similarities in stories between generations surprised me. I heard from both young and old people how lucky they felt to find housing.”
“People have so much in common if you give them a chance to talk with each other.”
“It was nice to see people exchanging contact information at the end. I heard people making plans to meet up – intergenerationally. The gift card for coffee seemed to work.”
The team is planning to continue hosting these intergenerational community conversations in December and through the spring. If you live in the service area of the White River Valley Consortium and are interested in having us bring this event to your community, please contact Anna Hubbard at email@example.com.
One of eight Vermont projects funded by the Working Communities Challenge, the Consortium was created to address challenges that individual towns can’t fully tackle on their own. Its first effort focuses on increasing housing for entry-level workforce and beginning entrepreneurs, which is essential for keeping our young people in our communities, encouraging innovation in our economies, providing a good quality of life, and attracting new residents. If you are a resident of the White River Valley, own or represent a business that is located in or employs residents from the White River Valley, or represent an organization that serves the White River Valley, you are an important part of this initiative.