Our opinion: The challenges of an economic paradox
As is often the case with resort areas, an economic paradox exists in the Deerfield Valley: Catering to the well-to-do tourists and second-home owners who vacation there has created a housing market that is too expensive for the local workers who rely on those tourism dollars for their livelihood.
That lack of affordable housing has a negative ripple effect on many other community and economic development issues. Young families can't afford to live in the area, further depleting the local school population and leading to higher per-pupil costs and taxes. Older residents on fixed incomes, who have lived there for decades, can't afford the higher taxes. Many would like to downsize to something smaller so they can stay in the area, but supply is limited.
These and other issues were brought to the forefront at a meeting last week in Wilmington. Residents, property owners, real estate agents, business owners, zoning administrators and other stakeholders from Wilmington and neighboring Dover raised a number of concerns and possible solutions.
Cindy Hayford, the Deerfield Valley Community Partnership coordinator, said she considers housing to be a basic need. "And if you don't have your basic needs met, it's a risk factor for substance use," Hayford said. "Stable food, stable housing — those basic needs are key if we're going to keep our children safe and healthy."
Fortunately, the two towns have teamed up to hire Camoin 310, a full-service economic development consulting firm, to conduct an analysis of the current inventory and a needs assessment.
Camoin Vice President Rachel Selsky, who lives in Brattleboro and worked on the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies document for the region, said a housing survey set up for residents and businesses to look at supply and demand will help her group better understand the challenges.
"Who's looking for housing that may not be able to find it?" she said while describing her research. "So is it a young family? Is it a young professional? Is it on the affordable end? Retirees? Elderlies?"
The website housingdata.org, set up by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, provides a basic picture of the supply side question. Dover has less than 35 affordable rental properties at the Butterfield Commons complex, most of which are designated specifically for senior citizens and the disabled. Wilmington has only seven apartments considered affordable. Some of the nearby towns also have a limited supply — nine apartments in Whitingham and 24 in Readsboro, and towns such as Searsburg, Halifax and Wardsboro have none listed on the website.
Steve Neratko, economic development director for Dover, said the communities know there is "a lack of housing for a lot of different sectors of folks who live here or want to live here," adding later that finding places for employees to live is the largest issue local employers face.
Possible solutions offered at the meeting include using some of the properties from the bankrupt Hermitage Club and turning them into affordable housing units, or using some of the 1-percent local option tax revenue to offer incentives to developers for more housing.
We offer one more suggestion: While the towns are waiting for Selsky and her group to finalize their research and analyze the findings, town officials should reach out to the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, which has extensive experience in developing and rehabilitating affordable housing units in nearby Brattleboro and Bellows Falls.
In fact, its stated mission is "to provide permanently affordable housing solutions in Southeastern Vermont, through property management, homeowner education, low-cost loans and financial assistance, and advocacy."
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