By Guy Page
Data point #1: VTDigger offers reporters a starting salary of $34,000 [source: June 2 Seven Days].
As new Seven Days columnist Mark Johnson reports, “pay in the newspaper business is notoriously low. I made $19,000 a year when I started at the Burlington Free Press in the 1980’s. You work hard and pay your dues.”
Mark Johnson, you lucky duck. The St. Albans Messenger paid me just $15K in 1984 after I’d already been in the business for five years.
Data point #2: in 1984 I paid rent of $250/month – about a quarter of my take-home pay. Four years later I bought a basement condo in Burlington for $40,000. In 1992 the equity from its sale funded the down payment on my first single-family home.
Data point #3: last year a one-bedroom apartment in greater Burlington rented for $1223; two bedrooms, $1573. Our VTDigger rookie must pay half or more of his/her net pay on rent alone. Save $40K for a downpayment on a $200,000 home? Good luck.
Why are so many hardworking Vermonters seemingly doomed to rent serfdom?
Sure, blame the free market and the influx of good jobs (both private and public sector), especially in Chittenden County. Blame, too, the pandemic landrush, in which rural Vermont homes reportedly are being sold for $50K above assessed value.
But also, blame the current Legislature.
Fixated on a Democratic punchlist clothed as a ‘pandemic response’ [Universal mailed ballots makes voting safer! Racial ‘equity’ is public health!], the Legislature has failed to help the working Vermonter escape rent serfdom. Bills being pushed through this session will make housing more expensive. Let me count the ways:
- S79 creates a state registry of every rental unit in the State. Failure to pay the $35/unit registry fee results in a $200/unit fine. The stated purpose of the registry is renter health and safety, and building energy standards. Already some municipalities are charging landlords prohibitively high fees for installing oil and gas heat. As Vermont pursues stringent, mandated carbon reduction goals, the state registry will be used to impose similar measures statewide. S79 passed the Senate, passed the House with an amendment, and in the first few days of the 2021 Legislature is likely to receive final Senate approval.
- H157 creates a state registry for construction contractors who work on residential projects over $2,500. It has a $50 annual fee, with $200 failure to pay. The stated purpose is fraud reduction and – again – enforcing building energy standards. A/K/A forcing contractors to help the State meet its carbon reduction goals, or else. But as eagle-eyed commentator Don Keelan noted this week, the real rub with H157 is that all registry applicants must not be in arrears in all state taxes; must not be behind in child support payments; and must have workmen’s comp, risk, and liability insurance.
A guy or gal with a buddy and an old pickup truck may have the will and the skill to roof, paint, plumb or saw. If H157 passes, he or she also will need capital, liquidity and paperwork patience and know-how to meet these new, daunting state standards. If approved, H157 will look like one more hassle on workers imposed by uncaring, arrogant lawmakers, most of whom went from college to white collar professions. What options are left to the blue collar entrepreneur?
- Find the money, skills and time to comply.
- Give up. Work as a relatively low-paid wage slaves for big companies, whose owners no longer need to worry about being lowballed by the small fry.
- Give up. Work the system for unemployment. As paperwork challenges go, it’s easier than satisfying H157. Or,
- Give up. Leave Vermont.
Like S79, H157 passed both House and Senate this year. However, a Senate amendment still needs House approval. It is likely to get final approval in the 2021 Legislature.
- Act 250 reform could have reversed some of the 50-year-old law’s onerous housing development restrictions. But the Legislature seems intent on tightening restrictions – again, in the name of Fighting Global Warming. Nothing passed this year, but as with S79 and H157, 2021 likely will be ‘the year.’
- Spending federal housing funds for $300K apartments for the homeless. There is a large but finite pot of money available to house homeless or at-risk Vermonters. The most persuasive voices in the Legislature believe new ‘low-income’ housing at about $300K per unit is the best longterm solution to housing the state’s growing population of homeless people. There’s much less interest in rehabbing older, unoccupied urban apartment buildings – partly because (once again) the energy standards make this work prohibitively expensive. So while many multi-million dollar new buildings which will each house a couple dozen people are under construction, hundreds of older homes are vacant or underused due to what amounts to the high cost of red tape.
Discouraging entrepreneurism and home ownership are acts of economic injustice. Years ago, banks refused to give home mortgages to blacks. As Johnson Republican Committee vice-chair Shayne Spence reported on Facebook recently, this practice is a significant cause of current economic inequality between blacks and whites. If he’s right, the sins of our white fathers are unjustly visited not on their own children, but on the black sons (and daughters) of those to whom lending was denied. When my parents died, I inherited my share of the value of their home, built in 1960 with a bank loan. The average black Vermonter my age was less fortunate.
The current Vermont Legislature – so woke, so proud – is perpetuating the same injustice on tomorrow’s Vermonters, red and yellow, black and white. Like Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Montpelier promotes unaffordable rent and discourages the hope of homeownership. Seems like a high price for others to pay so the Legislature can ‘lead the way’ in reducing carbon.