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My Bottom Line: Make Worker Housing a Priority

Chris Donnelly, director of community relations for the Champlain Housing Trust and Vice Chair of the VAHC Steering Committee, wrote this piece for the Burlington Free Press on making affordable housing for the workforce a priority. Read more below or click here:

Housing — and affordable housing in particular — seems to be on everyone’s mind. Perhaps that’s because of the increase of development activity we’re seeing in Burlington and surrounding towns, or perhaps the public discussion on income inequality has made us think more about our personal budgets and spending. Two weeks ago, Gov. Peter Shumlin told me and others that access to affordable housing was among the chief concerns he hears from business owners. Let me tell you what I know about our workforce and its needs for affordable housing. At first glance, Vermont’s employment numbers seem positive, with unemployment at its lowest statewide since 2005. But that doesn’t show the whole picture. It does not, for example, take into account part-time and temporary workers or the underemployed — those working of necessity below their skill level because they can’t find an appropriate job. The latest Census data show that Vermont’s median household income slipped 2.2 percent between 2012 and 2013, from $53,747 to $52,578, while the poverty rate rose 1.2 percent to 11.8 percent, with 74,058 Vermonters living in poverty. The people at the bottom of the economic ladder are having the hardest time. I think most of us would agree programs that alleviate poverty and address chronic homelessness should be a priority for public resources. We witnessed a 9 percent increase in homelessness last year and an explosion of state spending on motels in recent years to provide emergency housing to make sure people don’t die from exposure. But what about housing for working people? Is there a compelling interest in creating affordable housing for our workforce? More than half of the population who rents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, the level deemed affordable. With income stagnation, this doesn’t seem sustainable. Let me give you a few real life examples. Maleka Clarke lives in Burlington’s New North End. A single mom, she was homeless when her son was born. Aided by the stability of an affordable apartment, she put herself through school and is now a registered nurse . She can’t afford a market rent. Ian Boyd works at Community College of Vermont. He’s in the generation that many fear are fleeing Vermont because of the high cost of living. With $35,000 in college debt, he wasn’t sure he could put down roots here because it was so expensive. Ian spent three years to reach his goal of buying a home, made possible because of his hard work and Champlain Housing Trust’s shared equity homeownership program. Kristilynne Goodwin works two jobs and has raised her four boys in Colchester in an affordable CHT apartment. Her experience is common among the people in northwestern Vermont, where many jobs don’t pay enough to cover market rent. To afford the Fair Market Rent for a three-bedroom apartment for her and her kids, she’d need to earn about $31 an hour. In Chittenden County affordability belies reality. Efficiency apartments are advertised for more than $1,200 a month, requiring an income of $50,000 or about $23 an hour. With a 1 percent vacancy rate, I am sure those apartments will be rented, just as I am sure that other landlords are paying attention to what the market will bear. This will price workers like Kristilynne and Maleka out of the market, and it makes it harder for people like Ian to buy a home . There is an answer. Vermont has a strong network of nonprofit affordable housing organizations. State and local communities can invest in more opportunity for the workforce by partnering with this network. Beyond Burlington, communities like Hinesburg, South Burlington, Williston and others have started down this path by committing local resources and creating local policies to create housing for the workers who live there. For these people, there’s no distinction between affordable and workforce housing.
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