Keelan: While VT pols praise their housing spending ‘success,’ new workforce housing scarce

by Don Keelan

Recently, a major conference on the need for workforce housing in Bennington County was held for the second time. The latest one was in Manchester, following last year’s Arlington, Vermont conference. 

The conference speakers were senior state, county, and local officials connected with housing development, joined by Bennington County’s elected state and local representatives. Established building contractors and material suppliers were notably absent.

Don Keelan

Except for the different venue, this year’s conference was similar to last year’s. State officials expressed how critical it is for the State to develop thousands of workforce housing units on an annual basis. The State’s businesses, government entities, nonprofits, and schools cannot attract much-needed staff due to a severe lack of housing. 

The Administration and elected officials noted how successful they have been since last year in setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the State’s housing needs. Additionally, funds have been set aside to provide for town review and updates to zoning regulations to create more density and allow for housing units in downtown areas. 

Exciting developments, but they do not address the level of uncertainty that entitlements will be granted in a reasonable time frame, or if at all.

All the above can be cynically described as bureaucratic window-dressing in responding to the housing crisis. For the most part, luxury housing is the only housing being built in Manchester and the surrounding areas of Dorset and Stratton. 

As mentioned, the few premiere residential builders are constructing top-of-the-line housing that costs millions of dollars, from $800 to $1,000 per square foot. This figure is after the future homeowner has paid for the land, water hook-up, wastewater, drainage, utilities, and landscaping. 

However, there is one exception: multi-family housing construction is now underway in Burlington and other parts of Chittenden County. 

Back to southwestern Vermont.  If you could cut the cost in half or even by three quarters, the price per square foot is still unaffordable: $400/500 or $200/250 per square foot just for the building. Expressed another way: a 2,000-square-foot residence today costs $400,000 or $500,000 if one could even find a builder who would charge $200/$250 per square foot. 

Let’s meet the couple who believe they can afford the low-end priced house at $400,000 and have plans to put down 10%, resulting in a $360,000 mortgage. 

A year ago, said mortgage would have had an annual interest rate of 2.75% or $9,900 in annual cost. Today, the rate is 7.6% (10/26/22), with a yearly cost of $27,360. The major interest rate changes prevent many buyers from qualifying for a 90% mortgage. Of course, they could put additional money down above the $60,000 they need to close, but how many young families have such funds available?

What is needed to drive the cost per square foot down is to develop multi-family housing with stacking units (one over one) similar to what is being done in Burlington and planned for Bennington’s Depot Street development. 

Suppose we are genuinely interested in building workforce housing desperately needed in many Vermont towns and villages. In that case, attitudes will have to change toward what single-family housing units look like. For the foreseeable future, the one acre—one house developments are a thing of the past. 

With interest rates at 7.6% and climbing, construction costs at record levels, and construction labor in short supply, it is not the time to build. It is, however, time for towns and villages to plan and acquire housing sites with zoning and all approvals in place. Interest rates and costs will eventually come down, and maybe this time, Vermont can do what it should have done a generation ago: build workforce housing. 

The author is a U.S. Marine (retired), CPA, and columnist living in Arlington, VT.

Categories: Commentary

9 replies »

  1. This is one more subject showing where Vermont Government Officials lack common sense, critical thinking and reason. While they are whining and stressing about a lack of housing in Vermont, they are passing Laws that work in opposition and are worsening the situation. Are they really this stupid OR are they gas lighting aiming for another agenda?

    Bill S.234 – Stricter Act 250 Process
    Passed a more strict process with no public input
    Does this encourage building and development?

    Bills S.210, S.79
    Statewide Control of Rental Housing
    Registrations, Inspections, Regulations and Fees
    Also built in favoritism if renting to “persons of color”
    Does this encourage people to own apartment buildings?

    Bills H.157, S.226
    Statewide Control of Residential Contractors
    Mandates Contracts and Liability Insurance, Registrations, Fees and Fines for Contractors
    Does this allow contractors or building owners to do work or build new buildings?

    Also, who will build the buildings in the near future? We are NOT training workers. Where are the tech schools to teach the hands-on trades of carpentry, plumbing, electrical, welding, HVAC technicians, etc.? They are in very short supply.

  2. Same nonsense, different day. Yeah….the rest of VT should follow in BURLINGTON’S “footsteps”. Hordes of “affordable” housing there & the resultant hordes of CRIME & DRUGS in return! The “major conference” in Manchester addressed NOT just “workforce housing”, but additional LOW income housing for those who believe they are somehow, someway “entitled” to live in Manchester but don’t have the financial wherewithal to do so without the government, bent upon instituting more and more forced social programs & “diversity” of ALL types who seek to built it for them and then pay for them to live there.

    “Workforce” housing is merely the newest verbiage to disguise the building of yet more low income housing in Vermont — this now in a town, Manchester, which ALREADY has and offers more low-income housing than any other towns (proportionally) outside Bennington proper. Yet, but of course, it’s NEVER enough.

    Once again – should anyone specifically wish or hope to reside in a particular town at some juncture in life: WORK for it. Here are the “harsh” realities: Stay in school, and attend college (choose a major wherein attaining employment is feasible) OR trade school. Do NOT use drugs, particularly illegal drugs. STAY on the right side of the law always. Learn ways to save money and live within your means for as long as you possibly can (something President Obama once advised all Americans).

    Sound undoable? NAH. Guaranteed MOST parents, grandparents, & great grandparents accomplished that and more – many whom immigrated to the USA and who didn’t even speak English upon legally entering. If they did it, so can you. Americans aren’t “owed” homes by the government. YOU owe YOURSELF the ability to eventually own a home if that is the goal you so choose. Buying a home takes time and forethought.

    The increased push toward socialism is concerning & disconcerting. Personally? I’d like a 6,000 square foot home on Lake Champlain in Vermont replete with an inground pool, sauna, & acreage. Since socialism is so “wonderous” – I’ve decided to kick back and wait. Until the government here in VT builds it for me.

      • I was going to write that as well, but thought it might be construed as too “controversial” today. Lol! What isn’t though?

      • It’s just a fact. Nothing in romance and money is ever guaranteed. But it’s a fact that hard-working, committedly married people tend to “do better” than those who aren’t, especially in the area of housing.

  3. Except nobody wants to live in “stackable housing”, and one trip to Taft Corners in Williston perfectly demonstrates what it means aesthetically and is often compared to urban Russia. At the same time they want to increase the already 5-story big blocks, adding hundreds of people, cars, school children per year, town planners have not made any plans toward accommodating the traffic.

    But I suppose that makes sense, since our betters in Montpelier keep trying to outlaw cars and carbon in general, while at the same time these taxpayer parasites defile the environment with their toxic heavy metals such as lead, barium, cadmium…

  4. Hearing rumors about the UMall in South Burlington and “unannounced” businesses being closed due to no staff. Also, hearing rent increases going as high as $600.00. I did see a story on WCAX the pods are nearly open. I do wonder how these boxes will survive a nasty VT winter, let alone the people inside of them. The seeds of bad policies, bad politics, bad actors, ineptitude, fraud, corruption, and collusion were sowed long ago. The harvest of misery, desperation, and failure is here. Be sure to thank your local represenatives, bureaucrats, and liberal malcontent neighbors for turning Vermont into a hellscape.

    • Melissa – GREAT description and awfully accurate. Might I convince you to have that published throughout Vermont? All you need is a few sentences of intro as to the topic at hand. If you can, thank you; your musings are profound.

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