By Lisa Loomis
The Valley Reporter asked a variety of local community leaders to provide questions for the four candidates running for two state representative seats for the Washington 7 district which includes Warren, Waitsfield, Fayston, Moretown and Duxbury.
The candidates are incumbents Adam Greshin, I-Warren, and Maxine Grad, D-Moretown. Challengers are Ed Read, I-Fayston, and Heidi Spear, I-Fayston. Candidates will be answering questions from community members in the upcoming issues of The Valley Reporter, leading up to the newspaper's candidate forum at Big Picture in Waitsfield on October 27 at 7 p.m.
Win Smith, president, Sugarbush Resort, Warren
Realtors have said that there are more single-family homes for sale this time of year than in many years. Their primary reason is the cost (property tax and state income tax) and, therefore, they are moving out of state. Does this concern you?
Read: Once again, affordability is the issue. The increase in local real estate inventory is buffered only by historically low mortgage rates of the past few years. Once those rates start rising again, the cost of property ownership will climb, resulting in even higher inventories – simple real estate economics. There's long been an arrogance of "Sure it's expensive in Vermont, but we get to live here." That just doesn't cut it anymore and the empirical and anecdotal evidence bears this out. The outlook will only improve with real, comprehensive property tax reform and for this to happen there needs to be a whole different focus and attitude in the Legislature and the guts to commit to decisive financial relief.
Spear: I am not just concerned, I am doing something about it. Education funding reform is an absolute must to short-circuit the rising tide of property taxes that undermines affordability and our real estate market. The lack of aggressive work on this front is why I am running for office. Since realizing the limits of what we can acheive locally, I formed a task force to coordinate efforts across all school boards, organized an education funding forum for The Valley, pressed for change through hard-hitting commentaries in major news outlets and am now leading a reform working group that involves concerned citizens from both parties across the state.
Two votes from The Valley won't get this job done. We need to design constructive reform proposals, build a coalition to champion that reform and battle those who have every reason to perpetuate the status quo. I am committed fully to this work.
Grad: Yes. Addressing property taxes and education financing is crucial. My votes on school consolidation and Act 68 reflect my strong concern about our current system and commitment to finding a solution that will ease economic hardships and make Vermont affordable. I am working with community leaders, legislative fiscal and legal staff to develop a solution. The MRV Economic Study report is helpful and an important tool. Much of the goal of the study was to provide a factual basis of The Valley's economy to help move forward. It shows that there is a strong upward trend of people moving into Vermont, especially those with schoolchildren. Valley Realtors and the Vermont Realtors Association agree and reported to me that sales haven't significantly changed in the past four years and September looks strong. I will continue to work on the local and state level to strengthen our economy and achieve affordabilibty.
Greshin: Evidence from the Vermont Association of Realtors as well as local real estate offices suggests the number of single-family home listings is unusually elevated. While any number of factors motivates home sales, a common thread is often high property taxes relative to the services provided and the high cost of living in Vermont. We know we have a problem of affordability. The local job market often can't support the cost of maintaining a comfortable life in our communities. This is concerning for two reasons. First, the vibrancy of our community comes in large part from a broad mix of residents, not just those with substantial assets and income. And second, a greater supply of homes on the market will put downward pressure on prices which in turn will reduce the value of our Grand List. Absent an equal or greater reduction in school spending, property tax rates will rise.
Troy Kingsbury, owner, Village Grocery, Waitsfield
In my line of work I see a lot of different people from both next door and far away. The locals really seem to be struggling to make it here in Vermont and never seem to really get ahead. The way I see it a major issue is the lack of affordable housing especially for the lower to middle class in the Mad River Valley. If elected, how would you address this issue?
Spear: Local and sustainable are core values in our community, but when it comes to the economic lives of our residents, we have a long way to go. Few who work in The Valley can afford to live here and their challenges are only growing. What housing is within reach is of poor construction, expensive to heat and maintain. Quality properties get rented seasonally to vacationers for rates that can cover the property taxes, insurance and maintenance but which are well outside what is affordable for workers. Zoning reform to promote more cost-effective cluster development and infill would be helpful, but new construction just isn't economically viable for affordable housing without tax breaks to make it so. I would champion reforming Act 60/68 to contain property taxes and tackle affordability more broadly and seek designations for programs that make affordable housing development feasible here, as it is elsewhere in the state.
Grad: An affordable and efficient housing stock is vital to economic growth. Developing affordable housing requires collaboration among local partnerships. I will work with local nonprofits, towns, MRV Affordable Housing Coalition and the planning district to identify affordable housing opportunities. For example, Vermont Land Trust is seeking Valley parcels that will meet affordable housing and recreation demands. As a liaison between The Valley and state and county affordable housing organizations, I will assist Valley partners. I will look to successful resort community models to see if they could work here. I will work to address the issues identified in the MRV Economic Study: Valley housing is expensive, younger people get paid less, our housing stock doesn't meet consumer demand or efficiency measures. Many employees need winter rentals when vacationers rent. The rental prices correspond to vacationers' demand. Additionally, I will vote to fund the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.
Greshin: The Vermont Housing Finance Agency annually documents the difference between the average wage in Vermont and the wage required to own or rent a home. The lack of affordable housing in The Valley is one manifestation of this "affordability gap." Central Vermont Community Land Trust develops and operates several subsidized rental properties in Waitsfield and Warren. It receives funding from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) which in turn is funded by the property transfer tax. VHCB funding is always under pressure, both from a cyclical real estate market and occasional efforts to divert the property transfer tax to fill gaps in the state's general fund. One idea worth investigating is to allow our affordable housing organizations to borrow directly from the capital markets under the credit umbrella of the state of Vermont. This would provide more stable funding to expand rental and full ownership opportunities.
Read: Affordable housing has been a local issue ever since the Mad River Valley became a resort area. The same issue exists at every major ski resort in the country and, as yet, there hasn't been a comprehensive solution. Rightly or wrongly, it's a function of ski town economics. I believe this is more of a local policy issue than a state one. The housing needs and variables of an urban area like Burlington simply don't mirror those of ski towns and rural areas. There are some successful solutions locally – the Wheeler Brook Apartments were developed with a mix of private and public funds – but we continue to struggle to find a broader-scope solution, if there even is one. The Legislature cannot change the supply and demand economics of the local housing market. It can, however, ease the tax burden and give us greater flexibility in our personal financial decisions.