Select board members from Warren, Waitsfield and Fayston and others came up with several concrete actions to take after a brainstorming session on how to address the issue of housing availability in The Valley.
The November 19 discussion was part of the Mad River Valley Planning District’s annual leadership meeting. This year the focus was specifically on workforce and affordable housing.
Action steps that came out of the meeting, which will be pursued by the Mad River Valley Housing Coalition are:
- Having each planning district member town contribute funding to cover the cost of the housing coalition’s part-time staffer, Kaziah Havilland-Montgomery, continuing to work.
- Having member towns contribute to a tri-town housing trust fund.
- Having each town look at impacts of short-term rentals and come up with plans to potential tax and or regulate them uniformly across The Valley.
- Assess ways in which Waitsfield, as The Valley’s center of commerce, bears financial costs that other towns don’t and determine if there is a way that some of those costs could be shared.
Those ideas came after a lively give and take from members of the three select boards. The meeting was also attended by planning commissioners, Sugarbush representatives, former Sugarbush president Win Smith and members of the public.
It opened with Waitsfield Select Board member Jon Jamieson offering just a few of the housing problems he’d encountered.
“I’ve heard stories of people in our community like the elderly person who’s lived in an apartment for 12 years and that property is being sold. This person can’t find anything affordable and is worried they’ll have to leave their longtime community. I know of a single parent with a disability who lost a job due to COVID and has to leave an apartment and can’t find a new unit although desperately wanting to stay in The Valley and keep their kid in school here. There’s a 64-year-old longtime construction worker with rheumatoid arthritis who is not working and is having trouble maintaining home between taxes and cost of living,” Jamieson detailed.
He offered other examples of an entrepreneur with a chronic health issue who has been unable to work and was struggling to keep a home and two fully employed people with two kids who can’t afford to buy a home because of the burden of school loans and a situation where a community member can’t afford to keep a longtime family home after the death of a spouse.
“These are sobering observations. We know that housing prices are up 33% in the last month. I was talking to a realtor this week who said he wasn’t sure what they’re going to do during the winter because the inventory is just gone. There are no homes to sell. We’ve lost 200 rentals over the last three years. Short-term rentals have grown by a factor of three and our long-term rental availability rate has gone from 7% to 1%,” he added.
Waitsfield Select Board chair Paul Hartshorn said he was concerned about people getting set up in affordable housing and then not being able to pay their property taxes. His fellow board member Brian Shupe pointed out that Vermont’s education tax formula is income sensitized so property taxes (which include education taxes) are geared to household income.
Warren Select Board member Bob Ackland acknowledged the state’s property complexities but said that is not a reason not to move the needle forward.
Warren Select Board chair Andy Cunningham threw down a challenge.
“I’m going to challenge all three towns to start a housing trust and put it on your Town Meeting Day docket. Make people pay attention and vote it up or down. Take the first step. We’ve been watching this for so many years, and we come up with great ideas and then wonder why it’s not working,” Cunningham said.
Jamieson supported Cunningham’s challenge and said the community fund has been approached by donors who want to donate funds to a housing trust.
“It doesn’t take a lot of town money to leverage a lot of other dollars,” he said.
Fayston Select Board chair Jared Cadwell suggested that local towns are not getting any impact fees from the booming real estate market and asked whether there was a way to enact a local tax system to capture some part of the real estate sale and put it back into local housing.
His fellow board members, Chuck Martel and Mike Jordan, said they were skeptics in terms of local government being able to tackle the issue of housing.
Ackland pushed back and said that there are things that can be done and “there are ways to solve this problem. Density is a critical factor.”
“I applaud Andy’s suggestion. I’d like all three towns to kick in some money to keep Kaziah moving,” he continued.
Ackland also suggested exploring whether a local tax could be levied on short-term rentals, noting that there are 500 short-term rentals in The Valley.
“It is incremental. Kaziah has preached that from day one. It can take 10 years, so a 10-year housing plan is a wonderful idea,” Ackland said.