At its October 9 meeting, the Warren Planning Commission reflected on its priority to study the housing crisis in the coming year, placing that goal in a larger context of wealth inequality and other social factors.
Commissioners revisited their interest in studying the effects of the short-term rental (STR) market on unmet workforce housing needs in Warren, which they said in previous meetings would allow them to understand whether STRs should be regulated, and how.
In studying STRs, commissioner Adam Zawistowski, who recently joined the commission, pointed to the need to distinguish among various kinds of short-term rental situations. He said that an Airbnb rental for a ski trip is a different situation in which a property owner decides to increase the rental cost of a unit during ski season, which may displace a person who lives and works in The Valley if they cannot afford the increase.
Warren zoning administrator Ruth Robbins agreed that there are “different varieties” of short-term rental situations. She referred to what Zawistowski was describing as “seasonal rentals.”
Commissioner Michael Bridgewater agreed that the prevalence of seasonal rentals posed a problem for those seeking longer-term housing. “The reality is that the inventory we had back in the 70s and 80s, with year-round rentals for workers, people who live here, families – has shrunk dramatically,” he said, “and that’s a huge issue.”
The commission discussed these housing issues in light of results from the 2023 Mad River Valley Annual Data Report, which shows increasing rates of income inequality within a largely aging Mad River Valley population.
Every year, the Mad River Valley Planning District (MRVPD) collects, analyzes, and shares data related to population, housing, economics, the environment, and other areas. Towns can draw on the data for planning purposes.
Bridgewater called the data “frightening.” He said of the Mad River Valley community that “there’s a lot of positive stuff that’s percolating underneath, but the window of opportunity is much smaller now than it was even 10 years ago.”
“I think we all know the story – we’re getting older, we’re getting wealthier, and it’s harder to find housing if you’re not older and wealthy,” said commissioner Dan Raddock.
Commissioners acknowledged that rates of inequality in the MRV are, in many ways, a microcosm of the larger U.S. “It’s not just here,” commissioner Jim Sanford said. “Mainly we’re seeing it a little more illuminated because we’re a resort town, but this is happening everywhere.”
Commissioner Macon Phillips pointed out how The Valley is faced with alleviating social problems that are posed by an influx of wealth. He said that “in some ways, we’re on the wrong side of economic inequality.”
Of Warren, Phillips said that: “We’re desirable for people who want second homes. But if we don’t get out in front of this, it’s only going to get worse. And I don’t even know what ‘get out in front of this’ means. I’m just saying, it’s pretty stark.”
The commission also reflected on the link between the unavailability of housing and issues in the education system – including education workforce shortages, the overall quality of education and declining school enrollment. According to the MRV Data Report, total enrollment in the Harwood Unified Union School District decreased 16% between 2009 and 2022.
Phillips said that “if we’re going to lament the quality of education, let’s consider the difficulty for anyone who wants to be a teacher, much less a town administrator, to live in our community.”
Phillips recognized that in Warren, “we have this history, of moments where there was a lot of creativity, and thoughtfulness, and innovation.” His comment was a nod to the design-build movement of the 1960s and 70s.
“It’s cool to think back 30 years, but I think it’s more of a challenge for us to think ahead 30 years,” Phillips said, “and that’s what we’re here to do.”