Summit highlights affordable housing need, challenges

Jim Therrien


BENNINGTON — An afternoon conference here Friday detailed the stubborn challenges to providing affordable housing, while also highlighting some new funding and creative efforts to match housing costs with income.

Held at Bennington College, the well-attended Southern Vermont Housing Summit sought to inform local leaders across Bennington and Windham countries on housing issues, programs and related development issues.

Stephanie Lane, of Shires Housing in Bennington County, and Peter Paggi, of the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust, described efforts by their nonprofits to create and maintain affordable housing in Southern Vermont, amid a stagnant economy, comparatively low wages and both an aging population and aging housing stock.

"Poverty is certainly an issue here," Lane said, citing Bennington area statistics, including that one in three children in town live in poverty and 81 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches.

Average wages are about 75 percent of the Vermont average, she said, and Bennington ranks 188th among 282 Vermont towns in household income.

These factors and others "certainly drive the demand for housing that is affordable," she said, especially for those who might be working two jobs or under-employed and struggling to make ends meet.

Speaking of his organization's work in the Brattleboro area, Paggi said average rents can be a significant burden for those with incomes just above 60 to 80 percent of the median income, levels which would qualified a renter for some type of rent subsidy. For many, a $600 monthly rent would be manageable, he said, but actual rents often are "well above that."

Several of those attending emphasized the problem of aging housing rental stock. In many cases, they said, rental property has deteriorated over the years, and the owner is reluctant to make necessary upgrades or improvements — or in the case of "mom and pop" landlords, doesn't have the financial resources to keep up with repairs.

For private housing developers and management firms, said Jon Hale of Hale Resources of Bennington, low profit margins inherent in the region's housing market make providing quality and affordable housing units extremely difficult. He said his company has addressed that by buying property in foreclosure at low cost and doing extensive renovation work.

Even in those cases, Hale said, the higher property values resulting from the upgrades are made approximately equal the the total purchase and renovation costs.

Bob Stevens, of M&S Development, which is working with the group planning the $53 million Putnam Block project in downtown Bennington, said they normally figure the per-square-foot cost of construction in older structures as about three times the per-square-foot appraisal value after the upgrades.

Stevens said weaknesses in the economy are a major factor in those discrepancies. The "crux of the issue is that it comes back to the economy doesn't work," he said, later adding, "housing is just a symptom of a bigger issue."

Those conditions mean developers of housing, such as that planned for the Putnam Block site, must investigate every funding source or tax credit and also look to the state, region and community for assistance, Stevens said. With the Putnam project, a consortium of local institutions and businesses have joined to developed the four-acre property, and the town has established a tax increment financing district to fund proposed downtown infrastructure projects.

Forging better communications between developers and towns and creating a network of partnerships are key for such projects, he said.

"All businesses need to work together as well," Hale said, especially in promoting the area as an attractive place to live and find employment.

Realtor Paul Carroccio, of TPW Real Estate in the Manchester area, said there is not enough well-funded and coordinated marketing done here compared to what is occurring in nearby states, like New York.

He said Saratoga, N.Y., spends about as much to market itself as the entire state of Vermont, while municipalities here "are not doing that" but need to consider providing more support.

Concerning first-time homebuyers with limited resources, Paggi and others noted the dilemma of purchasing a lower-priced home when lenders won't approve a mortgage unless upgrades to the property are made.

One conference participant urged a new funding source for upgrades deemed necessary before a home changes hands — typically costing only a few thousand dollars but out of reach for some home buyers.

Zoning changes to encourage affordable housing also can have "a spectacular influence," Carroccio said, praising an ongoing effort to include such provisions in Manchester.

In the Northshire, said Lane, creation of qualify "workforce housing," for those working and at just above income levels that qualify for subsidies, is a priority for Shires Housing.

"People can't live where they work," she said, adding that there is a need for up to 500 units of such housing in the Manchester area.

As a consequence, housing officials said, it is not uncommon for lower-wage workers in the Northshire to live in nearby upstate New York towns, and a related problem voiced by employers is that they can't fill jobs because of the lack of affordable housing, especially for young people.

Jen Hollar, of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, said she is encouraged by a new sharper focus on housing issues at the Statehouse this year, not only because of a $37 million state bond that is expected to create hundreds of affordable housing units throughout Vermont.

Holler said there is a realization that housing subsidy programs those at from 60 to 80 percent of median income exclude a significant segment of the state's population whose income level doesn't allow them to purchase homes or afford quality rental units.

Discussion of housing-related initiatives this session is more prevalent among lawmakers and state officials "than I've ever heard," she said.

The conference was sponsored by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.'s Southern Vermont Economy Project as part of the Economic Development for Town Leaders series.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and Email: @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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