Two towns move forward with housing study
Steve Neratko, Dover’s Economic Development Director.

Two towns move forward with housing study

Saratoga Springs firm to develop 20-year master plan for Wilmington and Dover

DOVER — Steve Neratko has experienced the Deerfield Valley's housing troubles first hand.

Dover's economic development director said that when he took that position a few years ago, he had a hard time relocating to the area. He had to take a short-term rental outside of town and then move a couple of times before finding permanent, long-term housing.

“I definitely understand the difficulty people face,” he said.

The rental and homeownership markets in Dover and Wilmington have struggled to have enough housing but also affordable housing, especially for year-round residents, he said.

According to Neratko, “A number of factors have lead to a decrease in the amount of housing available” in Dover and Wilmington.

Part of what drives the shortage is a service industry designed to meet the needs of the valley's tourist economy. As a result, the second home market has driven up housing costs, he said. The short-term rental market - such as AirBNB and Vrbo - has also put pressure on the rental market, he added.

The upshot? Workers have a hard time finding housing, and employers have a hard time finding local workers, he said.

“It's really put a hold on economic development,” Neratko said. “It's really put a crimp on our ability to have a solid business footing here.”

Taking action

To reverse the situation, the towns have embarked on a joint housing study. The study will inventory the two towns' existing housing stock, determine immediate need, and then create a 20-year strategic plan.

The 20-year plan will help determine how and when the towns spend money on housing including short, medium, and long-term suggestions, Neratko said. Dover and Wilmington have each committed $10,000 from their 1 percent Local Option Tax revenues towards the study.

The Bi-Town Housing Committee - a subcommittee of the towns' Bi-Town Economic Development Committee - have awarded the study contract to consultants Camoin 310.

The Saratoga Springs firm received the contract in July and intends to complete the study within five months, according to Vice President Rachel Selsky.

The study comes during several local and statewide conversations about the state's tight housing market. In 2014, a five-year statewide Housing Needs Assessment completed for The Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development pointed to limited housing and high demand across the state.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires states receiving certain federal funds to conduct a needs assessment study every five years.

Other Vermont communities are embarking on similar housing assessments.

For example, Keys to the Valley is a collaboration between Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission in Ascutney, Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission in Woodstock, and Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission in Lebanon, N.H.

The study will cover 67 towns and at least parts of six different counties. The organizers say they're still in the fundraising stage.

Unique challenges

As the Bi-Town Housing Committee points out in its request for proposals released in March, Wilmington and Dover have unique challenges.

According to the RFP, the two town's resort and vacation economy has put pressure on housing prices and long-term rentals. The committee's concerns included the amount of aging housing stock, the large percentage of second homes or vacation rentals, and the lack of seasonal workforce housing.

“The Towns of Dover and Wilmington, VT, are home to two recreational ski areas, the Green Mountain National Forest, as well as the many amenities needed to support those facilities,” the RFP says. “This reliance on the tourism, retail, and service sector creates several unique housing challenges.”

“Much of the tourism employment is seasonally dependent, and many workers struggle to have the steady income stream needed for home ownership,” the RFP continues. “In addition, the second home market, as well as visitor rentals, increases the pressure on home prices for both renters and homeowners.”

Neratko added that the valley also must consider housing that allows elders to downsize or age in place so they can remain in their community as long as they want.

Gretchen Havreluk, Economic Development Consultant for the town of Wilmington, said the committee received approximately seven responses to its request.

According to Havreluk, Camoin 310 has worked in the region before, for example with the Brattleboro Development Corp.

Selsky said Camoin 310 has conducted multiple housing studies in communities across New England with economies that center on tourism. These areas include Provincetown, Mass. and Mount Desert Island, Kennebunkport, and Deer Isle in Maine, Selsky said.

Like Dover and Wilmington, these towns have a large percentage of second homes and seasonal jobs, she said. The communities also tend to have a high number of short-term vacation rentals using online platforms such as AirBNB or Vrbo.

Market forces

Because short-term rentals are becoming more profitable for landlords than long-term rentals, Selsky said, the housing market can become limited for year-round renters. This can constrain the workforce and ultimately leave businesses with an employee shortage.

The situation has lead communities to investigate their options and what tools they can employ. Some municipalities have started working with housing trusts or establishing incentives for year-round rentals. Others have adopted land-use and other regulations dictating length of occupancy.

Selsky said Camoin 310 staff have begun scheduling its kick off meeting and building its steering committee. The consulting firm is operating on a five-month deadline to deliver the final study.

Among other things, the study will look at housing inventory and evaluate the demand for different kinds of housing. For example, how many bedrooms do people need? What rents can the market actually support? Are people looking for apartments, condos, or single-level houses?

From there, the study will highlight existing gaps in the two towns' housing stock and build a strategy to close them, she said.

Selsky said the study won't have funding attached to build new housing, or money to address weatherization issues or health and safety issues.

Selsky herself lives in Brattleboro and says she loves the surrounding communities. She said Camoin 310 has seen an increasing demand for housing studies, and this has piqued her interest.

“There is a connection between housing, economic development, and quality of life,” she said - to have one, a community must have the others.

Over the next few months, Camoin 310 will announce community events and launch its outreach plans.

“We need the community's engagement,” she said.

Camoin 310 staff anticipate reaching out to as many community cohorts as possible including leaders, seasonal workers, and business owners.

Each group has different economic and lifestyle needs, so each group may also need different types of housing, she said.

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