On September 6, 2023

We need more housing and tens of thousands of new Vermonters 

 

By Ali Jalili

Editor’s note: Ali Jalili, Burlington, is a retired Foreign Service officer who served with the State Department all over the world, primarily as an economic officer. 

Vermont needs more people, especially young people and families who want to make Vermont a permanent home where they will work and contribute to a vibrant economy and society. 

If you disagree with that, I would welcome hearing your alternative vision. 

From my perspective, a Vermont that is not growing will face a doom loop, to borrow a trending phrase. This would be a vicious cycle of slower or negative economic growth, declining tax revenues, deteriorating public services, the exit of the most industrious individuals and businesses who leave to seek their fortunes elsewhere, and an overall deterioration of quality of life for those who remain. 

Unfortunately, despite widespread thinking that we have had a recent massive influx of new residents to the state, according to a recent piece by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, we had a net gain of only 92 people from 2021 to 2022. That is dismal. 

We need to attract thousands of new Vermonters every year for decades to really improve our economic and demographic fortunes. For those who worry about “overcrowding” or “overdevelopment,” fear not. You just need to take a plane ride over Vermont or a boat ride on Lake Champlain to see that Vermont barely has a visible human presence.

Even if we could magically add a net 10,000 new residents a year for 20 years, we would have still barely moved the needle; we would barely even then merit the one congressional district we get regardless of population size.

Having a small population has real costs. State government and other institutions providing public services have minimum overhead costs. A government bureaucracy providing services for 850,000 people costs only marginally more than one providing services for 650,000 because the leadership and offices and systems are already in place. 

However, those extra 200,000 people, representing, say, 70,000 households, would add hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues to state and local governments. They would also help fill the thousands of job vacancies we have. 

This could trigger what we could call a flywheel — a virtuous cycle of higher tax revenues, lower taxes, improved services, higher economic growth, industrious people and businesses seeking to come to Vermont, and an improvement in the quality of life for everyone. 

All of which brings me to housing. There is no way to get more people to move to Vermont when there is nowhere for them to live. 

We have made substantive progress on this front with the statewide reforms in the recent HOME Act. This is all great news, but cannot lead to complacency. We need to keep the momentum going with continued efforts to facilitate even denser construction in our cities. For example, the rezoning plans, such as Burlington South End, while very welcome, clings to outdated height limits and even squeezed those further in its final version, limiting most development to six stories. Why? In Vermont’s largest city, we can easily live with 10-, 12-, or even 20-story buildings. If not in Burlington, then where? If we don’t build up, we have to build out. Would you rather have dense, walkable downtowns or sprawl?

Finally, at the confluence of housing and bringing in thousands of new Vermonters is the unique role played by our colleges and universities. They are among the most important engines of economic and population growth for the state. Yet, many people in our community are opposed to capitalizing on this ready source of young new Vermonters, fearing the impact of “too many” students.

Expanding student enrollment should be celebrated, welcomed, and encouraged, but in the debate over the South End rezoning, dorms were almost nixed over concerns about expanded enrollment at Champlain College. Similar concerns were raised when the Burlington City Council tabled UVM’s proposal to build more housing on its Trinity Campus. 

I appreciate that growing enrollment without expanding housing would create untenable stress for the housing market. But that is because our housing market is artificially constrained by policy. Let UVM and Champlain expand their student populations as much as they want while also doing everything possible to make it profitable and easy for developers to build as much housing as needed for them and for the rest of us. 

That’s the recipe for a vibrant and growing economy and society — grow, build, grow.

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