The release last week of a new housing report shows that we still have a long way to go to make Vermont a more affordable place to live for almost 75,000 renter households in our state. In order to afford a modest, two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rent, renters need to earn $21.90 an hour, or $45,545 a year.
This is Vermont’s 2017 “housing wage,” revealed in the annual “Out of Reach” report released jointly by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington, D.C.,-based research and advocacy organization, and the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, a statewide association of nonprofits dedicated to ensuring that all Vermonters have decent, safe and affordable housing.
Though Vermont’s minimum wage is among the highest of any state at $10 an hour, individuals would need to work a whopping 88 hours per week, or 2.2 full-time jobs, to afford a two-bedroom rental home at the statewide fair market rent of $1,139 a month. To afford the average onebedroom rent of $901, they would need to work 69 hours a week, or 1.7 jobs. A full-time minimum wage worker in Vermont can only afford $520 a month for rent and utilities, leaving a gap of $619 for a twobedroom home and a $381 gap for a one-bedroom.
With an estimated average wage of $12.51 an hour, Vermont renters are left $9.39 an hour short of what they need to earn to afford a decent place to live. Vermont has the fifth largest affordability gap for renters of any state in the nation and is the 13th least affordable state in the nation, based on its housing wage. Vermont is the seventh most expensive state for rural (nonmetro) areas.
The housing wage is the hourly wage a family must earn, working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, to be able to afford the rent and utilities for a safe, modest home in the private housing market. Affordable means paying no more than 30 percent of income for housing costs. People who pay 40 percent, 50 percent and even more of their income for housing do not have enough left over for other basic life necessities and are one major car repair or other financial emergency away from homelessness.
Of course, things are different in different parts of the state: The greater Burlington area has a housing wage of almost $27 an hour, making it one of the highest cost areas in New England, while central Vermont comes in at $19.87, the Rutland area at $18.23, and much of the Northeast Kingdom at just over $15. Yet it is clear that renters anywhere in Vermont living on low-wage, service-sector jobs or fixed incomes like Social Security or SSI are in a precarious, unsustainable situation unless they have two income streams or some form of housing assistance.
While Vermont’s rental housing affordability gap underlines the need for a higher minimum wage and better paying jobs overall, it also makes clear that we need more resources devoted to making housing affordable at both the state and federal levels. Thankfully, Gov. Phil Scott and Vermont lawmakers understand the need and have responded with a $35 million housing bond, which will make a big difference over the next several years. They also passed several key policy measures this legislative session that will help encourage more housing production for both low- and moderate-income Vermonters. Together, these advances will provide much needed new and renovated housing, provide a stable foundation for many Vermont families, help reduce homelessness, and stimulate local economies. Hopefully these initiatives can move forward soon, once the current impasse between the governor and legislative leaders over teachers’ health care benefits is resolved.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be more help coming from the federal government anytime soon. We are blessed with some of the best, most creative affordable housing leaders in the nation, but they need all the key programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development to be fully funded to make progress.
Instead, we are faced with President Donald Trump’s cruel and mean-spirited budget proposal for next year. While it is generally considered dead on arrival, the president’s budget so drastically moves the goal posts that if even a small percentage of the proposed cuts and wholesale program elimination become reality, the impact on our economy and on low- and moderate-income working families, elders and people with disabilities in Vermont and throughout the nation will be devastating.
By eliminating essential housing resources like community development block grants, HOME and the National Housing Trust Fund, Vermont alone would lose about $15 million annually and affordable housing production would come to a grinding halt. The D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates we would lose 750 Section 8 rental assistance vouchers, which would plunge many more Vermont families into homelessness. In addition, critical safety net programs like LIHEAP fuel assistance, lowincome weatherization, community services block grants, legal services and Americorps are all slated for elimination. We know our congressional delegation — hands-down the best in the nation — will do its absolute best to make sure these egregious cuts do not come to pass, but Vermonters need to be aware of the potential impacts and raise their voices in opposition.
For additional Vermont information from “Out of Reach,” visit: bit.ly/2r68TOP. For national information, visit: nlihc.org/oor/.
Originally published in the Rutland Herald.