neighborhood housing

Vermont’s current housing crisis is intentional and the result of housing policies created by the state in the 1950s and 1960s. That’s one takeaway from the October 12 Mad River Valley Housing Summit, hosted by Lareau Farm and American Flatbread.

Keynote speaker Seth Leonard, managing director of community development for the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, addressed the crowd of 175 people at the summit.

“We talk a lot about a housing crisis and the implication is that a crisis comes out of nowhere. The housing crisis in Vermont is something we’ve come to very intentionally and it’s going to take very intentional work to get through it,” Leonard said.

He said that one of Vermont’s early development directors, Sam Ogden moved to Vermont from New Jersey in the 1950s and developed a housing policy that basically encouraged white people and second-home owners as ideally suited for Vermont.


“We didn’t get here by accident. One asked about the right kind of Vermont and they looked a lot like those of us in this room and we need to be comfortable talking about it,” he continued.

In the 1970s, Leonard said, during Vermont’s bicentennial, the question was asked about what Vermont would look like in 50 years and the concern at the time was that the state would be overrun with houses.

“There was fear even then that we might lose our sense of place and we made policies as communities and a state that limited that growth and limited who could live here,” he said.

How’d that work out, he asked? Slides show Vermont to be the state that is the second whitest, second oldest, second most rural and has the second oldest housing stock in the nation. Conversely, Vermont is the first in the nation for lot sizes.

“You can argue about what was done to get here, but don’t get lost in that history. We arrived here intentionally,” Leonard said.

Following up on the list of Vermont’s second-place rating in the nation for race, age, rural character, housing stock and lot size, Leonard pointed out that 25.6% of homes in Vermont were built before 1940. Over 32% were built between 1970 and 1989 and 22% were built between 1990 and 2009.

Leonard pointed out that the persistent failure to build sufficient housing impacts people from all segments of the community. There are no homes for middle- and lower-income people to buy, despite the state having grant and loan programs to help those people. There are no homes or apartments to house homeless people -- despite the state having funds to pay rent for the homeless. The lack of housing means the ratio of jobs to homes is too high in The Valley and employers can’t find staff because staff can’t find housing.


Compounding the lack of housing are the enormous increases in home prices which the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated. In 2019 the average home in Warren sold for $200,000. In 2021 that sale price was $325,000. In 2019 the average non-vacation home sale in Moretown was $250,850. That increased to $325,000 by 2021. In Fayston average sale price in 2019 was $291,000. That increased to $415,000.

In Warren, Leonard explained, 73% of homes are second homes. In Vermont 17% of homes are second homes. While in The Valley 45% of homes are second homes. Short-term rentals in Vermont are less than 5% of the housing stock. In The Valley they are about 6%. Less than 20% of Valley houses are rentals while 30% of the state’s housing stock is rentals. He cautioned against communities blaming short-term rentals for the lack of housing and pointed out that there can often be community push back against larger housing developments.

Leonard explained how regulatory and policy constraints can impact housing developers’ ability to assess and predict how long approvals for a project might take. That coupled with community push back impacts housing development and the lack of ability to predict timing impacts finances and results in a bottleneck.

He noted that developers can’t build only housing for low-income people because the rents produced are not enough to secure financing. Mixed income housing, per his slide, produces a better financial situation where developers can access financing sufficient to complete projects.

“There’s a ton of energy here and an incredible turnout. I know you came for the pizza. So harness this energy, be open to solutions that you may not have thought were the right ones before. And just keep asking that question, are we who we want to be and if not, how can we apply sustained intentionality to get us where we want to go in the future because that’s how we got to where we are today,” Leonard said in concluding his keynote address.

Participants then heard a panel discussion featuring questions from moderator Josh
Hanford, Vermont Commissioner of Housing and Community Development. Panelists included Darcy Lee, resident of Mad River Meadows, Jacob Hemmerick, planning and policy manager for the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, Katie Buckley, director of federal funding assistance program for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and Angie Harbin, executive director of Downstreet. Each explained their concerns and the efforts of their organizations in helping address housing. They were asked by Hanford to respond to various questions.


Lee, a Waitsfield resident for seven years and mother of two kids talked about the daunting task of trying to find housing before the pandemic and how after it struck, housing was impossible to find. She talked about her son not understanding the stigma of fellow classmates suggesting he lived in ‘the hood,’ and trying to explain that to a 7-year-old.

“I love living here. The sense of community is fabulous. I’m a Vermonter from the Middlebury area. I’d love to continue to live here. But if things don’t change, it will be out of my reach,” she said.

Jacob Hemmerick, planning and policy manager for the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, detailed the tools, training and grants that are available for towns and how to best take advantage of them. He shared an experience during the peak of COVID when he was participating in Green Up Day.

“All the shelters had been closed and I was out by the bike path picking up litter in the woods and I ran across an abandoned encampment. I found a pile of used diapers and tarps and realized that this is where kids are living. It was a reminder of how important this work is,” he said.
Hemmerick also provided a detailed look at how infill development can work in a small village using the village of Salisbury as an example of how housing can be developed on smaller lots within existing housing and development to take advantage of infrastructure. He said town planners were able to create 29 new housing units and nine lots in the village.


From VLCT, Buckley had a very clear message, a second important take away from the housing summit and that was that there are enormous amounts of federal ARPA funds available at the state and local levels and federal guidelines encourage using them for housing. Specifically, she said that any town considering a municipal water or wastewater system should be moving on that immediately. This has a direct impact locally where a study is underway to assess the feasibility of a municipal wastewater system for Waitsfield.

“If there ever was an idea of municipal water or wastewater, do it now. If you don’t do it now, you probably won’t. There are hundreds of millions of dollars available right now and debt will never be this cheap again. Act on it. Do it now,’ she said.

Harbin explained what programs Downstreet offers and the types of development the organization pursues. She noted that the organization is both a housing provider as well as a developer, but cautioned that organizations such as Downstreet can’t be expected to meet all of the need for housing in Vermont.

The meeting was opened up to questions from the audience and those ranged from queries about how the state can help towns understand and practice infill development to a question from a renter about how landlords can be required to keep rental properties in compliance with health and safety codes.

Waitsfield Planning Commissioner AnnMarie Harmon reminded those present that there will be a community discussion about municipal wastewater at the Waitsfield United Church of Christ on October 26 at 6:30 p.m.
Watch the full forum here on MRVTV: