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Voices / Letters from readers

Can artists afford to make Brattleboro a creative place?

I am writing in response to “Making a creative place” [Arts & Entertainment, Jan. 25], a great article that looked at the possibility of Brattleboro’s status as a “creative community” from many angles.

While those of us who know and love Brattleboro are already aware of the high percentage of practicing artists and general creative people living in and around town, it’s exciting to imagine what could be done with the money and recognition of a National Endowment of the Arts grant.

Speaking of money, my letter concerns financials: namely, can a person pursuing a creative career afford to live in Brattleboro?

I am aware that Kate Anderson, the chair of the Brattleboro Town Arts Committee, and Olga Peters, in writing the article, have explored this topic, but I would like to encourage more discussion, awareness, and possibly some solutions to the “rents are too damn high” problem (to borrow a line from New York City’s own ambassador for poor people, former mayoral candidate, and general rabble-rouser, Jimmy McMillan).

I moved away from Brattleboro many years ago, and at the end of this month I’m moving back. I’m very happy to be coming home. I have a good job awaiting me and I will earn a decent salary — a salary that wouldn’t even be bad here in the New York City area, where I currently reside.

But, as I talk with Brattleboro friends who rent their living spaces and as I look online at places like Craigslist, I start to feel a shortness of breath. Even with my professional-level salary, if I’m going to follow the general guidelines of spending only 25 to 30 percent of my gross income for housing, I will not be able to afford to live in most apartments currently for rent in Brattleboro.

So how can a creative person, who will likely have a lower or more sporadic income, afford to live in Brattleboro? I’m not sure they can.

That’s one of the things that once made the area a nice place to live: a person could afford to live here without working 60 hours per week or splitting an apartment with 12 other people and installing a rabbit warren of bunk beds.

Sure, I could rent in another town farther away and pay a little less per month, but then I’d have to drive to work. And we’re supposed to be decreasing our dependence on petroleum fuels, aren’t we?

Here are two stories for you to illustrate how alarming the rent situation is:

1. I bought a two-family house in 1998 in a pleasant Brattleboro neighborhood. I lived in half of it and rented out the other half — a two-bedroom apartment — for $800 per month, including heat, to help me pay my mortgage and taxes. I did so until I sold the house in 2003.

I recently found out a friend is living in that two-bedroom apartment and is paying $1,100 per month, not including heat. No improvements have been made to the apartment, and the same appliances I put in are still there. This $300 seems to be a big jump in nine years, especially considering the economic recession is keeping people’s wages down.

2. A friend lives in an apartment in Brattleboro, and there are serious heat issues in the apartment: mainly, until it gets really cold for many consecutive days, there is none.

The owners don’t do much to keep up the building’s maintenance or appearance, and the hallways are dirty, dingy, and poorly-lit. My friend has lived in the apartment for about 15 years, and in that time, the rent has doubled. I’m coming from New York City, and the rent my friend is paying shocks me.

From what I hear, the landowners blame the rent increase on property taxes. Have property taxes gone up that much since 2003, when I last had to worry about them and they didn’t seem so outrageous?

Also, considering that some of the buildings in this town have been owned by the same people or families for multiple decades and the mortgage has long since been paid off, are property owners really setting the rents to reflect their expenses?

Or is someone looking to turn a tidy profit from those who can’t afford to own, because, well, everyone else is doing it?

I know I sound accusatory, and I don’t mean to be, but what on earth is going on here?

I admit, I’m very much a novice when it comes to property tax, assessments, and all that. Could someone who knows something about this respond with some concrete data?

If Brattleboro rents aren’t kept in line with the area’s actual wages, who on earth will be able to afford to live here? And if property taxes really are the culprit, what can we do about it?

Wendy M. Levy
Jersey City, N.J.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #139 (Wednesday, February 15, 2012).

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