On April 12, 2023

Vermont must fix housing deficit

By Laurie Cox

Editor’s note:   Cox is a retired school counselor and longtime Ripton Selectboard member. Besides occasional writing she pursues art, gardening, hiking with her dog, and is always striving to build stronger communities.

“Can anybody live in Vermont?” asked the two young boys who had been visiting us for a couple of summers in the 1980s. They were here as part of the Fresh Air program, coming to stay with us from Brooklyn for two weeks each July. The first year, they saw our home as “summer camp” and were surprised that we lived here year-round. By that third summer they were 11 years old and starting to take in the scene with more maturity and awareness. They would have looked around and seen virtually no other Black people. Perhaps Vermont looked sort of like a gated community, without an actual gate.

We assured them that anyone was free to come here. They could just get on a bus; they would be welcome. But as the possibility of finding an actual place to live becomes increasingly difficult, who can move to Vermont?

There was a time, maybe when free trade agreements were getting organized under the Clinton administration, when I thought about equalizing opportunity for people around the world. Maybe it would mean those of us who had more would manage with less so that others could have what they needed. I contemplated people living in smaller houses without lots of extra rooms or anything fancy. I could be okay with that. 

Until perhaps the 1950s, most houses, whatever their size, only had one bathroom. Most kids shared bedrooms. When did it become almost mandatory to have a bedroom “ensuite”? At the same time, I was contemplating most people having smaller homes so that more people could have actual homes, I looked around. Instead of that vision, so-called “McMansions” were springing up: large, many-roomed houses where maybe 2.5 people lived. 

In the ensuing years, the number of people without homes has only grown. Even people who get hired for jobs that pay a decent wage have trouble finding a house they can afford within a reasonable commute. We all know this. One of the state’s top priorities is to have more housing for low- and middle-income people, but what kind of magic is needed to actually make Vermont a place where anyone can live?

We talk about increasing the population, the workforce, the children in our schools. Climate refugees, we say, but refugees from where? Do we mean people whose million-dollar homes are washing into the sea, threatened by mudslides and wildfires, or do we mean the people of Mississippi whose mobile homes have been ravaged by tornadoes? How about the people fleeing years of drought in sub-Saharan Africa, or those from Bangladesh or the Maldives threatened by sea level rise? Whom gets to come here? Whom do we welcome? Indeed, who can we welcome and how many?

My home in Ripton is bigger than my husband and I need. It would be great for a family with children, but we want to stay in Ripton, a community we have come to love. Where is the smaller house for us to move to in this town? That’s a part of the quandary. People who might want to downsize can’t, so houses designed to hold more people end up occupied by only one or two. 

Driving into and around Middlebury, I notice the large number of houses which in former years were turned into the offices of lawyers, dentists, real estate agencies and such. What if those buildings returned to being homes, while the current occupants moved to a couple of new office buildings? At the time, the transition from a family home to an office space seemed a good use for a house on Route 7 that was, perhaps, a less desirable location for a family. Now, a family might welcome such a location. While other plans and developments are in the works, these are houses that could quickly be resurrected into their previous life as family homes.

Most of us are not keen on change. When I mentioned the need to create more housing in Ripton to a friend, she said “We don’t need more people here. I want to live in a place that is not very populated,” and I get that. There have been a couple of times where homes built within my vicinity brought new lights in the evening to places that used to be all in darkness. I got used to that change, but initially I chafed at it. “There shouldn’t be lights over there!” I would mutter as night came on. So how do we make the changes we need without totally changing the nature of our state? Is it even possible to do both?

I think back to our Brooklyn boys — now grown men: Who gets to live here? I recall reading a short story in a magazine when I was in my early teens. It was about a Black family moving into a home in a midwestern town where they were not welcome, as it was a “whites only” neighborhood, not by covenant but by practice. I knew about segregation in the South but had never realized how this functioned in the rest of the country. 

I felt a bit smug, however, living in Seattle where such things didn’t happen — or did they? While doing some research recently, I happened upon the fact that between the 1920s and the 1960s, there were many areas of that city with racially specific covenants (or the legacy of such restrictions) on the homes in those neighborhoods. Given its very rural nature, Vermont had few such restrictions during that period when exclusionary practices flourished in other parts of the country. So, yes, anybody could and can live here. But if there is no place to buy or rent, what is the actuality? 

Of course, we should welcome people of wealth who no longer want their summers filled with wildfire smoke and their autumns threatened by hurricanes. But let’s also find a way to welcome people who might arrive here with nothing but their willingness to work and to have a safe and stable place to live and possibly raise children. They might be just the ones to help our communities flourish in the future.

Do you want to submit feedback to the editor?

Send Us An Email!

Related Posts

A public education Vermonters support and value

May 22, 2024
By Margaret MacLean Editor’s note: Margaret MacLean, from Peacham, has been an educator for 50 years, working as a teacher, school principal and consultant both in Vermont, the U.S. and internationally. Over the past 14 years Vermont has enacted three sweeping school district consolidation laws. The overarching goals of Act 153, Act 156, and Act…

Vermont’s lost submarine memorial

May 22, 2024
Dear Editor, At the Veteran Administration (VA) in White River Jct, VT, there is a distinct memorial dedicated to the Submarine USS Flier (SS 250) lost during World War II.  Ever mindful of our lost shipmates, friends and family that have served in the submarine service of our country, the U.S. Submarine Veterans, Inc. (USSVI)…

H.121 poses significant risk to Vermont’s business community

May 22, 2024
Dear Editor, As the CEO of the Vermont Country Store (VCS), I strongly support consumer privacy as does the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and many peer companies in the state. I wholeheartedly endorse the Connecticut law that was the foundation of H.121. However, as passed it is my hope that Governor Scott will veto H.121.…

Vermont’s outsize appetite for taxes

May 22, 2024
Dear Editor, Most Vermont taxpayers have just experienced a period of tax focus, specifically property taxes to support our public schools. Some communities are still going through the valuable public debate about property taxes and, more generally, the overall tax burden and trying to evaluate that relative to what we receive for our tax dollars.…