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Housing in Brattleboro: Not enough, and too expensive

Town’s housing needs assessment process seeks solutions to a longstanding problem

To view the various elements of the Brattleboro Housing Needs Assessment study, visit brattleboro.org, click on the “Departments” tab on the left side of the page, and then click the “Planning Services” tab.

BRATTLEBORO—Many issues surround housing in the region — mainly, that there’s not enough of it, and what is available is generally unaffordable for most renters or potential homebuyers.

In a place that wants to attract and keep workers and their families, this situation is untenable and needs to be dealt with as soon as possible.

Those are the conclusions — outlined at a public meeting on Nov. 18 — after six months of study, polling, interviews, and analysis that have gone into the Brattleboro Housing Needs Assessment.

Rachel Selsky and Dan Stevens from Camoin Associates, a Saratoga Springs, N.Y., consulting firm that specializes in economic development issues, presented their findings at the meeting and listed action steps that could be taken to alleviate the housing crunch.

Town Planning Director Sue Fillion, whose department commissioned Camoin’s study, told the people attending in person and via Zoom that she was “eager to share their findings” with the community.

Demographic challenges

Demographic data doesn’t reflect the population changes that have occurred, and are still occurring, since the COVID-19 pandemic began in Vermont in March 2020. However, according to the Housing Needs Assessment, definite trends can be seen.

While the overall population of Brattleboro has hovered around 12,000 for the past six decades, U.S. Census data show that any population growth is being driven by more non-white people moving into town.

The non-white population has increased by 78 percent over the past 20 years, while the white, non-Hispanic population has decreased by 7 percent.

Overall, the population of the area decreased by 3 percent from 2001 to 2021 and is predicted to decrease by another 4 percent over the next decade.

Brattleboro is getting steadily older, too.

From 2010 to 2020, the only population growth in town has come in the 65-and-older age group — a 28-percent increase in Brattleboro and a 37-percent increase in Windham County.

As a result, the median age of Brattleboro has increased from 43.2 in 2010 to 45.3 in 2020.

Another complicating factor is family size. The average household in Brattleboro consists of 2.05 people. This compares to 2.19 people in Windham County, 2.32 people in Vermont, and 2.58 people in the United States.

Incomes, jobs in decline

Median household income in town declined slightly over the past decade. Average wages in the area are slightly under $55,000, which is a bit higher than the county and region but roughly $5,000 less than the statewide average wage.

A bit more than a quarter of non-family households (those with one person, or where a person shares a home with unrelated people) make between $15,000 and $24,999 annually. Using the formula that presumes housing will consume 30 percent of one’s income, these salaries allow a monthly housing budget of $375 to $625 per household in this group — far below the area’s market rate for rental housing.

With a median monthly rental rate of $867 in Brattleboro, as of 2020, a household would need to earn $34,680 annually after taxes. To afford a median priced home in Brattleboro, a household would need to earn $57,957 annually after taxes.

However, the study found these calculations do not reflect the current state of the housing market, where 55 percent of renters say they are paying more for housing than they can afford.

The decline in income is driven by a decline in jobs here.

From 2016 to 2021, the area has lost 11 percent of its jobs (1,412). This decline is expected to slow from 2021 to 2026, where another 298 jobs are expected to be lost, bringing the total to 15 percent.

This scenario is expected to increase the need for affordable housing, as well as cause people to move out of the area to find work.

Conversely, the study found an increase in the number of job postings in Brattleboro. In July 2021, there were 1,731 unique job postings for jobs in town, a 123-percent increase from September 2016 and a 33-percent increase from July 2020.

But the lack of housing is a contributing factor to why these jobs are not being filled.

It is estimated that if those 1,731 jobs were filled, it would increase the number of jobs in Brattleboro by 16 percent.

High rental costs and low wages mean many people who work in town live elsewhere. Twenty-eight percent of the people who are employed in Brattleboro live outside of town.

Not much new housing

As for housing stock in Brattleboro, the study found that it is more diverse than other communities, with 40.9 percent of housing units in town comprised of single-family detached units, 16.3 percent in structures with five to nine units, 14.2 percent in structures with three or four units, and 7.9 percent in mobile homes.

However, Brattleboro has very little new housing stock. The highest proportion of the town’s housing stock was built in 1939 or earlier (44 percent), with only 1 percent built after 2010. The median age of a house in Brattleboro is 70 years.

Renters are occupying more of this housing. From 2010 to 2019, renters increased from 43 percent to 47 percent, and owners occupied fewer properties, with their rates lowered from 49 percent to 43 percent.

Both seasonal and vacant houses saw increases as well. Short-term rentals are having little impact on the overall housing market, with an estimated 103 units (2 percent) reserved for seasonal rentals.

Stevens said that the area needs about 500 new housing units, with at least 60 percent set aside for those with annual incomes under $50,000, but the private market is not interested in building affordable housing in Brattleboro.

Also, there are few sites in town that are available for building new housing.

Selsky also pointed out that high labor and construction material costs and a high level of scrutiny for projects with state and local building regulations, plus the public opposition that usually comes with new housing proposals, discourages many developers from building in Vermont.

What can be done?

Selsky and Stevens outlined the goals for a strategy to increase housing in town.

First, the town needs to work with developers to “increase the supply and diversity of housing in Brattleboro” and “create new funding sources and strategies to create and rehabilitate affordable and middle-income housing.”

Then, more support needs to be provided to residents in their efforts “to find and retain quality housing” through creating “an implementation framework by monitoring housing issues, communicating needs, building capacity, and collaborating on solutions with partners.”

Audience members offered their ideas.

Gary Stroud, a Representative Town Meeting member who serves on the planning commission, said that more should be done to encourage cooperative ownership of housing, such as the ownership arrangement at the Tri-Park mobile home parks.

Resident Robert Oeser agreed with Stroud, and asked whether the state and federal COVID-19 relief money the town is getting can be used to create more arrangements such as Tri-Park.

Rev. Scott Couper, pastor of Centre Congregational Church in Brattleboro, said he loved living downtown and being close to his church, but doing so meant “50 to 70 percent of my income went toward paying rent” on his apartment. He said that was a big factor in his decision to move out of Brattleboro to a more affordable place to live.

Couper said he wouldn’t mind paying that much of his income if it was going toward ultimately paying to own a property and asked whether more could done to encourage rent-to-own arrangements, such as condominiums.

Resident Kurt Daims said the housing situation should be considered “an emergency,” and that the town should consider relaxing building codes to make it easier to turn spare rooms into living spaces. A local nonprofit, Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing, has been supporting local homeowners in this effort since the 1990s.

Christine Colascione, the Foodworks coordinator at Groundworks Collaborative, thought creating more of what’s known as “accessory dwelling units” would be a good idea, but care would need to be taken to make sure that they don’t end up becoming short-term season rental units.

Selsky said that she and Stevens will make a full presentation of their findings and the action plan, incorporating feedback gathered at the Nov. 18 meeting, before the Selectboard in December.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #640 (Wednesday, November 24, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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