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Kora Skeele of Mocha Joe’s Roasting Co., right, listens as U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., talks during a recent breakfast meeting of the Southern Vermont Young Professionals.

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Lack of housing comes between young workers and careers in Vt.

More housing options are needed to attract, retain workers in the state, young professionals tell Welch

BRATTLEBORO—The lack of public transportation, the high cost of housing, the high cost of child care, and dealing with student-loan debt top the list of obstacles for young people trying to start their working lives in Vermont.

Members of the Southern Vermont Young Professionals group recently aired their concerns with U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., at a breakfast meeting held in the warehouse of Mocha Joe’s Roasting Co. on Flat Street.

Welch told the young professionals that “it’s you who are going to have the burden and the challenge” of revitalizing local communities in Vermont.

But he also recognized the many challenges they face.

Welch, a native of Springfield, Mass., said he lived in White River Junction when he first came to Vermont in the early 1970s after graduating from law school. Even factoring in five decades of inflation, the circumstances were much different then.

“I had $5,000 of student-loan debt after college and law school,” he said. “I was single then, and the first place I lived was an attic apartment, and my rent was $125 a month. My first job [as a public defender] paid $9,000 a year, but I could still pay my bills.”

Now, he said, young people have student-loan debts “equal or higher than my first mortgage, which was about $46,000.”

Pinched dreams

Then, as now, Vermont’s wages are lower than those in urban areas, but Welch said that Vermont was still affordable for most people who were just starting out.

Katherine Partington is now at the New England Youth Theatre, but previously worked for Mondo Mediaworks. The firm, which specialized in digital marketing, once had as many as 14 employees but was forced to retrench and cut its workforce to three at the end of 2018.

Partington said she loved working at Mondo and has been able to find other work since the layoffs, but for other young professionals who lost their jobs at Mondo, she said there was “not a lot of choice or options” for comparable work in Vermont.

She added that about half of the laid-off Mondo workers had to leave the state.

“There seems to be a lack of flexibility when it comes to moving from job to job,” she said.

Kora Skeele, who works at Mocha Joe’s Roasting Co., said she grew up in Westminster West, moved away from the area, and now is back in Vermont. She said that affordability remains an issue for young workers, who might work in Brattleboro but have to live outside of town because of high rents and few workable housing options.

“I can’t buy a house that accommodates my family of four, and then pay the property taxes, and then pay for day care,” she said. “I simply can’t find a house in Putney.”

Jillian Hobday is a creative director at Five Maples, a Putney-based development communications firm for nonprofits. She said she and her husband, Cory Williams, had to find a place to live through AirBnB when they moved to southern Vermont from Georgia.

When their six-month rental was up, she said they still hadn’t found an apartment to rent or home to buy that was near their jobs.

That was three years ago, and Hobday said it took about that long to find a place to live that worked for her and Williams. That place ended up being in Newfane.

“There is nothing out there,” she said, adding that Vermont “is a beautiful, lovely place with all these wonderful things to do,” but running underneath that is the fear of losing a home if one loses a job, because so few professional opportunities exist.

Apartments are similarly scarce, as the vacancy rate in Brattleboro hovers around 1 percent and vacancies in well-maintained properties disappear as fast as they come up.

“It’s hard to build new, and it’s too expensive,” said Alex Beck, workforce education manager at Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. He pointed out that the only people that can afford to build new housing units are nonprofits such as the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.

“If any of us want to buy an old home in town and fix it up, the town turns around and says, ‘Thank you for moving here and thank you for fixing up our neighborhood,’ and hands you a tax bill that’s twice as high,” Beck said.

Welch said it was clear that new housing units are needed in Vermont, but that local zoning regulations and Act 250, the state’s land-use law, can act as a brake on projects.

Local solutions

One remedy is being offered by Mocha Joe’s. The owner, Pierre Capy, said that he has teamed with Brattleboro Savings & Loan to provide down-payment assistance toward buying a house in the area.

Mocha Joe’s provides $5,000 to its employees.

“Since we started it, we had three people buy houses,” Capy said. “I know $5,000 is not that much when it comes to offering a deposit, but through our relationship with Brattleboro Savings & Loan, they are offering an $11,000 grant as well.”

Capy said the program is geared toward people in their 20s “who don’t necessarily think of themselves as homeowners but, in this town, it is so expensive to rent that it is significantly cheaper to buy a house.”

Welch said that the program was a good example of what can be accomplished at the local level by employers who recognize the importance of seeing their workers in stable housing situations, and banks that recognize the importance of investing locally. That’s why local banks and local businesses need support.

“Wall Street is doing fine,” he said.

The bigger picture

On the state level, Welch said that more needs to be done to encourage new affordable housing to be built. The emphasis has traditionally been on creating low-income housing, but with wages for U.S. workers stagnant for decades, the definition of who needs affordable housing has changed.

“You can have a ‘decent’ job, but if the costs are escalating way beyond what you can pay, then you are in the same situation,” he said. “This conversation we’re having, we could have this in just about any rural or urban area.”

At the federal level, Welch said “the priorities are skewed” and cited as one example last year’s tax cuts that the Republican majorities in Congress pushed through last year.

“It adds $2.3 trillion to the deficit, and 87 percent of the benefits went to multinational corporations and the top 1 percent [of wealth holders],” he said. “That’s your money that’s going there, instead of for programs for first-time home buyers, or relief for student-loan debt.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #522 (Wednesday, August 7, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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