- Christine Glade
- Stanley Kimball
Stanley Kimball, 73, has lived in the same house in Bennington for 19 years. Since his daughter and granddaughter moved out about four years ago, Kimball has been maintaining the three-bedroom abode and the grounds on his own: He plows the snow, shampoos the rugs and mows the lawn. Kimball lamented that he recently spent two whole days raking leaves.
Tired of the chores, and worried about his mobility and safety in the house as he got older, he put the ranch-style home on the market three years ago. Within weeks, he had offers. He signed a contract with a young couple who planned to bring horses to the property, which pleased Kimball. His daughter had kept horses there for years.
Finding a place to move, though, was a much bigger hurdle. Kimball said it was nearly impossible to find what he wanted: a one-bedroom, single-level apartment in his price range.
"By the time you figure out what you're paying, it's way over your fixed income," he explained. Much to Kimball's disappointment, he had to break his contract with the young couple. He simply didn't have anywhere to go.
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Kimball's situation illustrates a broader problem that is compounding the state's housing crisis. Vermont's senior population is growing rapidly; in another decade, one of every four Vermonters will be over 65. But aging homeowners are discovering it is very difficult to find housing that suits their needs, whether it's an affordable apartment without stairs or a spot in an assisted-living community. The resulting housing pileup affects not only older Vermonters' ability to age comfortably but also younger residents who want to purchase first homes.
"I call it 'gridlock,'" said Ben Durant, a senior real estate specialist who helps older Vermonters transition into senior communities. "There's this large block of people that don't have anywhere to go, and we wonder why there's not enough housing."
"Folks are kind of frozen in place," said Peter Tucker, the director of advocacy and public policy for the Vermont Association of Realtors. "Houses that might be appropriate for families are kept from coming on the marketplace."
Older Vermonters overwhelmingly want to stay in their homes as long as they can safely do so, surveys show. But seniors who wind up living alone often find it isolating and difficult. Some rely on house visits from caregivers, including delivery drivers who bring hot food through programs such as Meals on Wheels. Despite those services, maintaining health and home becomes more difficult and, in many cases, unsafe.
They might consider one of Vermont's more than 100 senior-living communities, including independent- and assisted-living homes, though experts say the current stock of senior housing is not enough to meet the growing demand. New senior communities are not being built quickly enough to accommodate the state's aging population, Tucker said.
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That means seniors have to wait, often for years. Older Vermonters who qualify for a subsidized one-bedroom apartment through RuralEdge, an affordable nonprofit housing and community development corporation in the Northeast Kingdom, typically wait five years. Similarly, Cathedral Square — which owns and manages affordable housing for older adults in Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties — has a waiting list of three to five years.
"I could build tomorrow what it has taken us 45 years to build and barely meet the need of what we're seeing today on our wait list," said Kim Fitzgerald, CEO of Cathedral Square.
At least 200 of the 1,000 people on the organization's waiting list are homeowners in Chittenden County. If these people could get into new housing, Fitzgerald explained, they would "free up their single-family homes."
Landing a spot at upscale Wake Robin in Shelburne, which charges $3,237 to $8,313 in monthly fees, can take two to three years. But more people are applying than ever before, said Meagan Buckley, director of health and resident services.
- File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- A Meals on Wheels delivery in East Montpelier
For those who would prefer to live in housing not designated for seniors, options are limited as well. Durant has found that single-level homes or units are difficult to find for his clients across the state. Conor O'Dea, director of the State Unit on Aging in the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, known as DAIL, said many of the rural seniors he works with express the same frustration.
"What we hear is, 'Well, if I sold my home, where am I going to go?'" O'Dea explained.
Seniors also have an incentive to stay in their houses: Vermont's homestead tax credit program, which grants property tax breaks to homeowners on a sliding scale based on yearly income. Those who receive the biggest credits are low-income homeowners, many of whom are seniors on fixed incomes, said Jake Feldman, senior fiscal analyst for the Vermont Department of Taxes.
While Feldman clarified that it's hard to draw an exact correlation between the property tax program and the number of seniors who are choosing to age in place, he thinks a connection is being overlooked. "The reason that we have to spend so much on trying to create workforce housing is partly because we're spending so much to keep people in their homes," he said.
That's not likely to change anytime soon. State Rep. Emilie Kornheiser (D-Brattleboro), who is vice chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, told Seven Days that the legislature is not planning on reducing coverage of the property tax credit program. If anything, she said, lawmakers are considering education finance reform that would further benefit property owners.
The "gridlock" has serious consequences not just for young families but also for homebound seniors. They are tending to stay in bigger and older homes despite safety concerns.
"People are in homes that are less suited to their needs," explained Joe Nusbaum, director of licensing and protection for DAIL. "It's more and more common for people to be self-neglecting." He was referring to some seniors' inability to care for themselves properly due to physical or mental impairments. Nusbaum said he believes the state is ill-prepared to deal with the problem.
And if someone requires assisted living, the relocation costs skyrocket. Residents of assisted living communities in Vermont pay $4,500 on average per month for care and housing. Cathedral Square operates the only Medicaid-approved assisted living community for seniors who require memory care. Fitzgerald said demand is through the roof.
Meantime, the growing senior population has helped shrink the average size of Vermont's households to just 2.3 people — the third-lowest in the nation. Single-person households in Vermont have grown five times as fast as in the rest of the country. Nearly four in 10 senior homeowners are living alone, a 2022 Vermont housing assessment found.
Experts across sectors agree that the best solution is to build more housing suitable for older Vermonters. That would require collaboration that focuses on affordability. O'Dea hopes that downtown revitalization and community zoning reform efforts across Vermont spur the growth of affordable housing suitable for older adults. Fitzgerald maintains that having a broad spectrum of options is important: independent housing, assisted living, residential care and nursing homes are all part of the equation.
Some new senior housing developments are coming online. Chestnut Place, a 99-unit boutique senior housing facility in Berlin, opened in April; Bayview Crossing, a 30-unit mixed-income community in South Hero, is slotted to open sometime this fall.
In Burlington, city councilors are betting on one creative solution — HomeShare Vermont, which matches seniors and others who have extra rooms with people looking for a place to live. The mutually beneficial arrangements provide seniors with housemates who might agree to help with cooking or transportation; the renters get to share a comfortable home at a good rate.
In 2022, HomeShare matched 197 participants ranging in age from 22 to 98, most of whom were identified as low-income. Last week, councilors approved a pilot program that provides stipends of $1,000 to 30 new HomeShare hosts who meet certain requirements.
Ray Tomlinson decided to sign up with HomeShare when he found himself strapped for cash and living alone after a divorce. In 2016, he started sharing his four-bedroom Essex Junction home with one other person, who lived there for more than a year. When the pandemic hit and Tomlinson decided to retire from his job as a bus driver, he took in two HomeShare tenants. So far, he said, it's been going great.
Tomlinson, 75, said having housemates gives him some peace of mind when it comes to safety and enables him to keep living where he prefers. "I wouldn't leave here unless they carried me out," he said, laughing. "I bet there are other people who have lost a wife or husband and would enjoy having somebody else in the house."
It's not for everybody, though. In Bennington, Kimball has continued his yearslong search for an apartment so that he can downsize. The pandemic made looking harder.
"I kind of get depressed along the way," Kimball acknowledged. "I go online every morning to see what apartments are available and try to contact people."
A few weeks ago, Kimball decided to buy enough heating oil to last him through another winter. He thinks he might pick up his housing search again in the spring. But for now, he's staying put.