Affordable housing

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(HOST) Experts are concerned about the “Graying of Vermont,” but when it comes to attracting more young people to settle here, commentator Tim McQuiston thinks affordable housing will be a key factor.

(MCQUISTON) According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Vermont’s population grew about fifteen percent in the 1970s, which was faster than the national average. In the 1980s, we were right at the national average at around ten percent. Since then, it’s been all downhill. While the national average is projected to hold steady at around eight percent growth over the next three decades, Vermont is expected to drop to around three percent by 2030.

Vermont’s population is getting older faster than the rest of the nation. Predictably, the birth rate is low. Young Vermonters are leaving the Green Mountains for greener pastures. And in the mean time, there’s a housing crunch. All this is an enormous economic development problem.

Several years ago, I was at a Rotary Club meeting. When my turn to talk came up, I spoke about the local economy. I mentioned that their particular region of the state very badly needed an increase in young families. Such a demographic not only brings lots of intrinsic energy into a community, but also makes big-ticket purchases – homes, washing machines, cars – as well as other goods and services.

If you want to boost the local economy, I told the group, do what is necessary to increase the population. And if you want more young families, you have to meet their needs for affordable housing – especially single family homes – and quality schools.

So, this one gentleman, a leader of the business community, said, “We looked into that years ago and figured out it would raise our property taxes.”

Just like that. There was dead silence in the room and my jaw dropped. If I’d been a cartoon character it would have hit the podium.

But that has been the attitude in Vermont for a very long time now. And the state is far from being an economic basket case. The unemployment rate just fell again. It’s well below the national average, and despite the big-name layoffs, businesses are still aching for workers. But workers need a place to live.

And there are other worker disincentives. The range of job opportunities in Vermont is limited. The pay scale is not sufficient to keep young Vermonters working here after school. And most of those thousands of out-of-state college students who come here to study also leave once they get their degree.

Still, the affordable housing issue is an economic choke point we can do something about. Already the city of Burlington is talking about increasing its population by fifty percent by “building up” and adding a lot of multifamily housing. In 2005, the building of just two condominium complexes in South Burlington reduced the median new-home price statewide by 55,000 dollars.

So, if you want to generate a boost for Vermont’s economy, build more affordable housing and watch the population grow.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.

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