The housing bills signed by Gov. Phil Scott recently present an opportunity for Manchester and other Bennington County towns to address a housing crisis that is slowing the growth of businesses and causing far too much anxiety for residents who are concerned they’ll be forced out of their homes.
The changes that Scott signed into law, aimed at easing the permitting process for higher density housing near developed town centers and helping middle-income families afford single-family homes, are important steps forward. The new laws also include money for property owners to bring existing units up to code and back into the marketplace.
But housing experts have made clear that this crisis does not have a push-button solution that cures all the complicated and intertwined factors at once, making housing attainable for all.
Rather, solving this crisis depends on every town doing its part to assure a sustainable future for the region. It can’t be left to only the county’s largest towns — Bennington, Arlington and Manchester — to carry all the weight on housing solutions.
A lack of adequate housing was a problem long before the pandemic. But the increase in demand led to price increases making it nearly impossible for young adults to return here after graduation, or for new residents to move here. Employers who want to hire and expand cannot do so, because there’s no place to house workers. As such, some of the best candidates for Vermont jobs never make it here.
This isn’t just about economic growth. It’s also about towns having enough full-time residents to operate as true communities.
Temporary guests of short-term rentals, and seasonal second homeowners who arrive and leave with the opening and closing of ski areas and golf courses, are of course welcome here.
But Airbnb guests do not run to the fire station when the whistle blows. They do not coach youth lacrosse, deliver Meals on Wheels, or work for businesses and services essential to our towns.
A viable future for Manchester and the Northshire must include permanent, attainable residential housing — the kind that people who want to be here full-time can call home. The kind that sustains our community with firefighters and volunteers, and youth coaches and workers. Resort destinations like ours cannot take the core of our community for granted, or we’ll find ourselves with far fewer teachers, impassable roads, and no one responding to our fender benders and well-being checks.
There are already whispers criticizing a proposed 40-unit mixed-use, mixed-income development on Depot Street in Manchester. Those whispers are in code, but it’s easy to crack: Listen for phrases like “changing demographics” and “preserving our character.”
So let’s clear the air, right now.
First of all, some of the folks who would live in that proposed development are people who live here right now, but might not otherwise be able to stay.
Second, homes that regular people can afford, and the folks who live in them, will improve Manchester, not damage it. The “threat” of outsiders ruining things is a flat-out falsehood, and an old, tired and frankly xenophobic trope that needs to be laid to rest.
While other communities have a part to play, here’s three steps Manchester should take:
• If affordable, move town offices back to Depot Street to help the proposed housing project “pencil out.”
To be certain, the cost of moving Manchester’s town offices back downtown is likely more than retrofitting its current offices. But such an investment would pay an important dividend: It would assure those 40 units of housing actually get built.
That project could be a game-changer for a downtown in need of a shot in the arm. And the current town hall site could also be used for housing once the Main Street sewer line extension arrives.
• Address the obstacles to building a needed sewer line on Richville Road.
There’s a long history of legal entanglements and questions about what would become of the privately-owned sewer system at Green Mountain Estates if the town expanded sewer service on Richville. But that improvement would make housing development possible on town-owned property near the former airfield and would better protect the town aquifer, both valuable efforts.
• Enact a common-sense short-term rental ordinance that sets a level playing field for hospitality businesses, respects neighborhoods and rewards owner occupancy.
Short-term rentals are in and of themselves not a bad thing. They help make it possible for visitors to stay here when hotels and motels are booked solid. And the revenue they generate helps property owners pay their taxes.
But a residential property should not be allowed to operate as an inn or bed and breakfast without living by the same rules as those businesses. That includes abiding by safety, water and sewer capacity rules, as well as being a good neighbor.
We’ve made a big enough mess of our climate that coastal cities are likely to disappear sooner than we expected. Places such as Vermont will be seen as a refuge from oppressive heat and rising tides, not to mentioned the unexpected events that push people toward a rural life, just as the pandemic did in 2020.
We need to be ready for the next influx — and to make sure that people who already live here aren’t forced out of the community they call home.