Stepping into my service year with the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition as the new Resident Engagement VISTA, I knew that my orientation would be filled with vital information on housing policy, organizational supports, and current events in the affordable housing world. However, I never expected how my own experience of moving to Vermont from out-of-state would supplement my first few weeks of on-the-job learning. With my immediate exposure to the narrow housing market, my understanding of what so many Vermonters are facing significantly broadened and I was able to take away a few key points about the state of housing today that would have been harder to grasp through just presentations and literature alone.
One of the first things I was able to comprehend was that COVID-19 has only exacerbated Vermont’s long standing housing crisis. Following a steady downward pattern, the development of Vermont’s housing stock has reached a virtual stagnation as fewer new homes are being built every year. A lot of housing stock that is available is not meeting the needs of most Vermont residents. Along with this, as the pandemic propagated the practice of remote work, it seems that more out-of-state buyers are coming to Vermont to live and work. In 2020 alone, home sales to out-of-state buyers jumped by a drastic 38%. So overall, the growing demand for housing and increasingly short supply of it has only been augmented over these past two years of the pandemic.
Next, I found that Vermont’s longstanding housing crisis has been stretched by the pandemic beyond just those Vermonters with the lowest incomes. First and foremost, the tight housing market has also folded middle-income Vermonters into the housing crisis as well. As the pandemic has helped to exacerbate the housing shortage, even folks with stable jobs and moderate incomes face a fast-moving market and long waiting lists if they can even find potential housing. Additionally, the housing stock challenge has been amplified by the pandemic as students return to college campuses across the state. With Vermont colleges like the University of Vermont and Middlebury accepting record numbers of students for in-person learning, the demand for housing has increased further as on-campus housing becomes more limited. With all of this, even more Vermonters are struggling to buy or rent due to both issues of affordability and availability.
Lastly, through my own experience securing housing in Vermont, I observed how extremely tight housing markets can lead to increased incidents of housing discrimination and fair housing violations. Besides just the emboldened economic barriers that are occurring due to limited supply of homes and rental units, I became more aware of the discrimination that prospective renters face as I scrolled through housing chat forums and Facebook groups and observed various shared stories. Most surprising among these were accounts of folks being turned away because they had children or even just because they received Section 8 vouchers in order to secure the very housing that is already so scarce. Accounts of health and safety violations were just as disturbing, as the limited availability of housing has in many cases effectively turned people away or forced them into unsafe living conditions as opposed to not being housed whatsoever.
Even as my “practical orientation” of securing housing and moving to Vermont has been able to inform my formal orientation about the many affordable housing issues facing the state, it has also highlighted why the mission of the Coalition and all of its member organizations are more important than ever. Like with most areas of systemic injustice that have made the news over the past two years, these housing issues existed long before the pandemic and will continue long after. So this is where we, the Coalition, come in. It will be up to us to continue to educate, advocate, and maintain that even outside the pandemic, all have a right to safe and healthy homes so they can work, study, and most importantly: live!