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Nowhere to Go: Vermont's Exploding Housing Crisis Hits Moderate Wage Earners

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LUKE EASTMAN
  • Luke Eastman

Kyle Tatsak and Miquelle Thurber love living in Stowe, where there are miles of trails for walking their two dogs. They go snowboarding and rock climbing together when they're not working. But this summer, the two are reluctantly preparing for a move to Michigan, where Tatsak's family lives.

After six months of searching unsuccessfully for an apartment they can afford, the two have made the difficult decision to relocate to a region where they know they can buy a home for less than $200,000. Renting is just too expensive, the two said, and buying a home in Vermont is completely out of reach. Tatsak has already found a new job near Ann Arbor, and his family is helping Thurber, 23, who works for the State of Vermont, find something new, too.

"We're moving out of state in order to start a proper life and save money for retirement, or for anything aside from having to pay bills," said Tatsak, 32, who works as an electrician at the Stowe Mountain Resort and as a bartender in town. "Vermont doesn't seem — at least currently or in the near future — to be a place where we can do that."

Vermont's housing shortage has stumped policymakers for years, even decades, but the problem appears to have peaked in recent months. It's difficult to find a place to rent or buy, even for those who can afford the asking price.

Real estate brokers and landlords place a good share of the blame on the COVID-19 pandemic, which inspired scores of newcomers to seek the relative safety of Vermont, bidding up the price of single-family homes or renting if they could not buy.

The housing shortage has become so acute that it's starting to affect every aspect of social and economic life in Vermont. Job seekers who have found the perfect position have to turn down offers because they can't find housing nearby. Romantic partners who are breaking up can't move apart because there's nowhere to go. Pleas for housing leads are a regular feature of online community forums.

Young adults, unable to afford their own place, are living with their parents in greater numbers than at any time since the Great Depression — a phenomenon that started before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Pew Research Center. 

"This is the first time I can ever remember the housing crisis affecting everyone, not just the low-income," said Cindy Reid, development director at Cathedral Square, which develops and manages 26 affordable housing communities in northwestern Vermont. 

Reid, who has worked in Vermont housing for three decades, said there is a perfect storm of adverse conditions right now.

"The income disparity just continues to grow, so people on fixed incomes have a really hard time affording anything good," she said. "Known homelessness grew in the pandemic, and people from out of state are buying Vermont homes sight unseen, in some cases for cash, and Vermont workers cannot compete with that."

Housing advocates say typical Vermont incomes aren't high enough to support buying or building a home. The same is true for rentals: A full-time Vermont worker would have to make $23.68 an hour, or $49,258 annually, to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment here, according to the annual Out of Reach report published last month by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. By contrast, the average Vermont renter earns about $13.83 an hour.

Vermont's rental vacancy rate is 3.4 percent, and Chittenden County's is about 2 percent, according to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency. A healthy vacancy rate is around 5 percent, according to the VHFA, which said the state needs nearly 4,000 new rental homes to meet current demand.

Meanwhile, real estate brokers have become so accustomed to bidding wars that they're unsurprised when they field a dozen offers or more on a property that hit the market just the day before. The median sales price on a Vermont home rose a whopping 45 percent between May 2020 and May 2021, according to the Vermont Association of Realtors.  

"They're selling as soon as they hit the market," said Laurie Mecier-Brochu, a senior manager for the Sotheby's real estate agency that covers Vermont and part of New Hampshire. "We don't have the inventory for people to look at, and it creates a fervor."

It's not just anecdotal; the Vermont Center for Geographic Information analyzed property transfer tax payments for 2020 and found that real estate sales to out-of-state residents rose 38 percent that year. The value of the transactions rose nearly 80 percent, according to a report published earlier this year. 

Expensive homes aren't the only object of this frenzy. Kay Curtis, board president at the 300-unit Tri-Park housing cooperative in Brattleboro, said she was flooded with requests for mobile home rentals last year. 

"During COVID, we had people walking off the street saying, 'What have you got? We'll buy it,'" she said.

A lot of renters say they're being pushed out because their landlords are selling the homes they live in, eager to cash in on the housing boom. And there just isn't enough inventory to meet the demand. The number of available listings for sale dropped by more than half between June 2020 and June 2021, according to the Vermont Association of Realtors — from 3,510 homes last June to just 1,607 for sale this June.

Michael Monte, CEO of the Champlain Housing Trust, said his group received 914 applications from January to April this year for just 50 available apartments.

There's no statewide count of apartments, but would-be renters say listings are often claimed just minutes after an advertisement runs.

That's what Tatsak and Thurber found when they started looking for a less expensive apartment this spring. Since March 2020, the two have paid about $2,000 per month, including utilities, for their two-bedroom apartment. They knew the rent would be a stretch when they moved in, but they were desperate.

After six months of searching, they haven't succeeded in finding something more affordable.

"Most places I contacted already had an extensive list of applicants," said Tatsak. He recently responded to a Craigslist ad that had been up for three hours. The woman who answered the phone said she had someone who was interested, but she'd put him on a waiting list.

"She was like, 'Keep in mind, you're like 25th'" on the list, Tatsak said.




High demand, low supply

Jack McCarthy - ANNE WALLACE ALLEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Anne Wallace Allen ©️ Seven Days
  • Jack McCarthy

Vermont's housing problems have been a long time in the making. Even before 2010, the number of new homes in the state increased just 1 percent per year, and the pace has stagnated since, according to a state housing needs assessment for 2020 to 2025.

The state has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, and regulatory and financial barriers discourage for-profit developers from building new homes. High land prices and a labor shortage also suppress construction. 

Global factors are at play, too, including the growing income gap, rising construction materials prices, and low interest rates that encourage home purchases. The National Association of Realtors, which recently released a study on the affordability gap, said the years of underbuilding is a national phenomenon.

Short-term rentals also play a role by taking off the market homes and apartments that were once available for long-term occupancy. And Vermont has one of the highest proportions of second homes in the country — a rate that's rising, according to the state needs assessment. Many of those homes are only occupied part time.

"Honestly it's hard to not feel xenophobic against everyone we're seeing moving up here, especially rich people with multiple houses," said Jack McCarthy, who works at a Montpelier restaurant and has been trying since June to find an apartment with three friends.

He thinks those second homes could be put to better use: "It's like, 'Oh, cool, thanks for taking the space you're not going to live in for half the year.'"

Efforts to solve the housing crunch take many forms. Employers are adopting creative strategies to help workers find housing, with some going as far as to put out calls to the community. Municipalities are taking a hard look at the housing stock in their communities and pondering ways to encourage more affordable options. The state as a whole, meanwhile, expects to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief money beefing up housing options.

But such long-term solutions offer little relief to those currently in need of a new place to live. 

Just ask Maureen Kendall, 61, who moved to Florida 13 years ago to care for her now-deceased parents but wanted to return to Vermont, where she grew up. After a nine-month online search turned up few housing leads, Kendall and her 25-year-old son packed up their belongings in late June and drove north. They spent about a month bouncing around central Vermont hotels.

Describing herself as "old school," Kendall has struggled to adapt to the world of modern apartment hunting, frequently running into online scams or landlords who want application fees and other personal information before she can even schedule a walk-through. 

"I'm not really good at the computer stuff," she said. "I'm still looking on the side of the road for 'for rent' signs."

She was initially hoping to find a two-bedroom apartment in St. Albans, where her son grew up, and recently managed to track down two options within their maximum budget of about $1,500 a month.

"One was perfect, and we wanted it desperately," she said. The landlord, however, turned them down after learning that neither had secured a job in Vermont yet. The other apartment, meanwhile, "was an absolute dump," Kendall said. "The floors were uneven. It was filthy. It stunk. It was just nothing that we could even consider staying in." The proposed rent? Just shy of $1,500.

Kendall and her son are now living and working at the Stowe Inn — she as a chef, he as a dishwasher — while they continue their search. They pay a daily room charge that she declined to detail. Their list of must-haves no longer includes two bedrooms, and they are no longer limiting themselves to the northern part of the state.

"It doesn't matter where we live in Vermont at this point," Kendall said. "We just want to come home."

A permanent home is what Natalie Costagliola, 77, and her husband, Leonard, are looking for.

The two moved to Vermont two years ago to live closer to their children and grandchildren. She and her husband both grew up in Brooklyn, where he later worked as a butcher; Natalie was a customer service representative for AAA.

The couple, who moved only twice during their first 50 years of marriage, has already moved two times since arriving in Vermont — with a third in the offing. 

Their landlady is moving back into the Montpelier condo that the pair are renting. They need to be out at the end of August and haven't found a place that they can afford on their Social Security income. 

They can pay the rent, which is currently $1,400, Natalie said, but they'll have trouble putting down a security deposit until they get back the one for their current home. And they're not interested in assisted living, she said, though Leonard, who is in his eighties, suffers from dementia.

"I don't think I could afford it, and I don't want my husband to be institutionalized," said Natalie, who cried when she talked about his illness. "We are doing our darndest to take care of him at home."




Nowhere to live

Megan Rudy - BEN DEFLORIO
  • Ben Deflorio
  • Megan Rudy

Megan Rudy, an orthopedic trauma nurse at Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical center, was in a hospital room recently when a physician asked the patient about life at home. Among the questions: Have you ever had housing instability, or not been able to pay your rent, or not had a place to live?

Although she wasn't the one being asked, Rudy reflected that her own responses would have surprised her just a short time ago, when the idea of housing instability hadn't occurred to her.  

"I could literally check the box for 'homeless with two children,'" Rudy, 41, said of her own situation. She had to leave her rented home in Woodstock in mid-June when her landlord moved back in, and while she found a house nearby to buy, the closing isn't until the end of August. Her kids are with their father. 

Unable to find a place to rent for the summer, Rudy stayed with friends and stored many of her possessions in her car. In early August, she was able to rent a home from a friend's parents for four weeks. 

She never expected to find herself in the position of sleeping on friends' couches at this stage of her life. 

"It's very, very humbling, more humbling than getting divorced," she said. "I don't know what I did wrong. I'm very fiscally responsible and save and do all that stuff."

Like Rudy, many of the people who are searching for homes have parents or children they need to house, and they've had to settle for something that wasn't quite what they'd wanted. 

Kendra Wright began searching for an apartment in Barre last fall after her five-year marriage soured. But when she found no two-bedroom apartments that fit her budget, the 29-year-old decided to give her relationship another chance. 

"That didn't fare well for me," she said.

Wright restarted her search this spring, hoping that she could find a three-bedroom apartment big enough for her two kids and her father. After a frustrating three-month search, Wright finally landed a new place in Rutland this July. 

It's far from perfect: The two-bedroom unit doesn't have enough room for her father, and the $905 rent represents about half of her take-home pay as an optician trainee. Still, she knows she's one of the lucky ones.

More than a dozen other people told Seven Days that they have spent months looking for housing to no avail. Most said they were in the running for places, only to see them scooped up at the last minute by someone else. 

Molly Duff, a 26-year-old graduate student at the University of Vermont, recalled contacting a landlord just 15 minutes after a $1,300, two-bedroom apartment in Burlington's South End was posted on Craigslist. "I really had my fingers crossed that I was going to hear back," Duff said. She never did: Within a few hours, the post was gone. "Obviously someone was quicker than me."

State Rep. Kelly Pajala (I-Londonderry), a single mother of two teenagers, started looking for a place to rent in June when her landlord told her he planned to sell her condo. As Londonderry town clerk, Pajala is required to live in the Windham County ski town.

After searching in vain for several weeks, Pajala recently tracked down the owner of an empty house and got permission to rent it. Friends helped her clean the place, which was full of trash and abandoned furniture.

She said the ordeal has left her exhausted and constantly worried. She won't be able to relax until the lease is signed, and she said one of her children is anxious and sad about the situation.

"It's hard to tackle the everyday things that come up when a lot of your energy is being consumed by where the roof is that you're going to be sleeping under," Pajala said.

The intense competition has given landlords a lot of power. Many apartment hunters say they rarely hear back when they inquire about availability — even those who consider themselves ideal tenants, with reliable jobs, high credit scores and great references. 

"It's not enough in this market," said Kristi Loven, 39, who has spent much of the last six months obsessively refreshing housing websites. "It's nowhere near enough." 

Loven and her husband own a modest Bolton home that was deemed unsafe after a 2019 flash flood wiped away much of the backyard. They now worry every time it rains heavily and fear the house won't last through another spring thaw.

The couple initially considered trying to purchase another house but decided against it after seeing home prices skyrocket during the pandemic. 

They are now looking to rent a two-bedroom apartment and hope to stay in Chittenden County; they have a 7-year-old daughter with autism who receives services in Burlington, and Loven's husband, Wes Melville, works at a Keurig warehouse in Essex. But even with a healthy monthly budget of $1,750, the competition has proven too great. 

Loven estimates she has reached out to well over 50 places. She recently followed up with one rental manager at a large apartment building to ask about the chances of her family getting a unit by October. The response? "They've had so many applications coming in that they've stopped processing them," Loven said.  

"It certainly makes us feel like we have no hope," she added. 

McCarthy, the Montpelier restaurant worker, recalled a similar experience, saying he and two friends paid a $45 application fee to a Montpelier housing management company, only to be told the apartments they had applied for had already been rented. He displayed his email exchange with the landlord showing that the group had spent $135 on three applications, money they could ill afford. 

The landlord responded, "If you filled out the questionnaire and was not contacted then either you didn't qualify for that particular unit or there was 6 qualified applicants ahead of you and we ended up moving forward with one of them."

McCarthy and his would-be roommates spent some time tenting at a state park and camped for a while on a friend's land 45 minutes from Montpelier.




In search of solutions

Miquelle Thurber, Kyle Tatsak and their dog, Cali - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Miquelle Thurber, Kyle Tatsak and their dog, Cali

Housing has a direct role in the economic recovery. Many employers say they're being held back by a worker shortage, and they tie that directly to the low housing supply.

The problem is particularly acute in resort areas such as the Mad River Valley, where second homes make up more than 55 percent of the housing stock in the seven towns near Sugarbush Resort and Mad River Glen ski areas. A 2020 report from the valley's housing committee said housing is largely out of reach for families making less than $100,000 per year, according to Kaziah Haviland-Montgomery, the committee's coordinator. 

In 2019, 68 percent of the area's workers made less than $40,000 a year, she said. 

"Anecdotally, our lack of affordable housing options has become even more desperate since the release of the report," Haviland-Montgomery said in July. 

Rachel Lee Cummings, executive director of the Counseling Service of Addison County — a nonprofit that has a job vacancy rate of roughly 15 percent — recalled an instance before the pandemic when a newly hired staffer resigned because he was unable to find a house to which to move his family from Massachusetts.

Other staffers would prefer to live closer to the agency's Middlebury offices but can't find any suitable options, Cummings said. She worries the commute might eventually become too great for some. "There's plenty of jobs closer to their home," she said. 

When Jennie Lohmann, 47, relocated to Vermont from Connecticut during the winter to start a new job at Burlington's Converse Home, she filled out more than 20 apartment applications and contacted the managers of nearly 60 properties. The closest place she could find was in Morrisville, an hour away.

Lohmann moved in at the start of this year but was back on the hunt a few months later: Her partner, who has been living in Florida temporarily for work, wanted to join her in Vermont, and the couple needed a larger apartment — ideally, one closer to her job. Again, she found few options.

She finally managed to secure a three-bedroom apartment last month. The $1,350 rent includes both heat and electricity, "which is huge," Lohmann said. The only problem? It's located in Johnson, adding another five minutes to her commute.  

"I was very lucky last winter because, while it snowed, it never really accumulated," she said. "I don't think I'm going to get so lucky this year."

The need for housing has become so acute in Rutland that on July 22, Mary Cohen, director of the nonprofit Housing Trust of Rutland County, met with representatives from other local affordable housing organizations and from five of the region's largest employers to talk about how to address the problem. 

The five — including the city's public school system, the local hospital, Killington ski resort, Casella Waste Systems and General Electric — have identified housing as one reason they can't find the workers they need, Cohen said.

At the meeting, the group agreed to talk to developers about creating a public-private partnership. Cohen said developers aren't building medium-cost housing because they can't get the financing they need; contributions from employers could close the financing gap. 

And "we could have access to [federal] money if we come with the right proposal that makes sense," she added. Vermont has set aside around $150 million in federal coronavirus money for housing projects.  

Some employers have already come up with innovative ways to provide housing for their workers. 

Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington has bought and renovated four local homes in recent years to sell at a reduced price to hospital employees. The hospital created a nonprofit called Healthy Homes for Bennington so other companies can eventually take part.

The main objective is to help workers find housing, but the hospital is also trying to revive downtown Bennington, said Kevin Dailey, a vice president at the hospital who is in charge of the program. Some of the houses were bought out of foreclosure or at a tax sale. Healthy Homes sold them for around $150,000. The project was suspended in 2020 and 2021, but it will start shopping for another derelict house in the spring, Dailey said. 

"We're only interested in homes that nobody in their right mind would buy," he said. Because of the recent increase in construction costs, "it's still too much for a business person to acquire them and renovate them."

Short-term housing, which is a high need for hospitality businesses, farms and hospitals, has been in particularly short supply for years; ski areas such as Sugarbush and Killington have purchased local motels to house their seasonal workers. Yet it's also a little easier for some hospitality businesses than others to provide housing. 

Jay Peak rents its own condos to employees on a first-come, first-served basis, said Steven Wright, the resort's president. About half are set aside for the foreign workers that live at the resort every winter and half for workers from the local area.

"Although we'll reduce our net revenue by some percentage, without dedicating more space to the team, we wouldn't be able to attract both the volume, and quality, of staff that we'll need to meet our goals here," Wright said. 

The problem isn't confined to ski resorts. Mike Lubas and his partners at Vermont Tent Company in Essex Junction usually hire foreign workers through special visa programs for their busy summer season, although they didn't hire any this year due to COVID-19.

To ensure that they can house visiting workers next year, Lubas and his business partners met on July 27 to talk about buying a house or a block of apartments. 

"If we bought it and charged them some type of rent that is affordable for them, could that be a solution?" he said. "The housing market has gone through the roof; who knows if we could afford something like that?"

It's not just employers who are joining in the search. Vermont Law School has no on-campus residences and is scouring South Royalton in an effort to house its incoming fall class, which is expected to be larger than usual, said Justin Campfield, the school's director of communications. The community-wide plea included people who have never rented to anyone before, Campfield said.  

"As a result, we've had multiple community members reach out to offer rooms in their homes, although we are continuing to work to find housing," Campfield said.




A bruising scramble

Natalie Costagliola - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Natalie Costagliola

Vermont will devote more than $150 million in coronavirus relief money to building and renovating housing over the next several years, far more than it's ever had available for this purpose before. 

The money could create as many as 5,000 units over the next several years through repairs and upgrades at mobile home parks, renovation of existing buildings, and incentives for developers to build market-rate homes. 

But such initiatives could take years if not decades to roll out. In the meantime, competition for a place to live remains sky-high. 

Even as they prepare to move to Michigan in August, Tatsak and Thurber are still hoping they can find a way to stay. Thurber's coworkers at the Department of Environmental Conservation, where she is an administrative assistant, have been helping her look for apartments. Thurber, who grew up in Barre, doesn't want to leave her family or the landscape she loves.

"We enjoy snowboarding, and the rock-climbing scene here is incredible," she said. "It's hard to find that in Michigan."

Rudy, the nurse, sometimes feels as though her own situation is the result of a personal failure. Then she remembers how many other people are facing similar situations. There are messages on local online forums nearly every day from people who are looking for housing, often because their rental is being sold. She has friends in Lebanon, N.H., who have given up on finding a home. They've given notice at their jobs and are moving back to Massachusetts. 

"They don't want to move, but they have to," she said. 

At twilight on a recent drizzly day, McCarthy, the Montpelier restaurant employee, sat at a table under an umbrella at a closed Burlington business. Parked nearby was a car that contained all his belongings.

McCarthy, 26, spent much of the pandemic living with his parents in Ferrisburgh and, after several soggy weeks in central Vermont, has returned to their home. But he wants more independence and can't see how he's going to get it.

"I'm trying not to think about that," he said of the future. 

Natalie Costagliola, the Montpelier resident who is caring for her husband, hasn't had any luck finding another apartment, and her children aren't in a position to host their parents. Visitors from the UVM Medical Center's Home Health & Hospice dropped off some application forms for two local rental management companies, but Natalie said they didn't have any openings. 

"I'm not young," she said, "and moving every year is just killing me."