Refugee housing supports economic growth for everyone

State funding for temporary housing for refugees on the World Learning campus is more than a humanitarian gesture. It’s also a strategic economic measure.

Gregory Lesch is executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.

As The Commons noted in its Jan. 10 front-page story by Joyce Marcel ["Vermonters ask: Where have all the workers gone?"], southern Vermont faces a serious labor shortage and a rapidly aging population that is compounded by a tight housing market.

State-supported transitional housing for incoming refugees addresses these issues head-on. Welcoming these new Vermonters is not just a humanitarian effort, it's also a strategic economic measure.

Since January 2022, World Learning, the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), and the Brattleboro Development Credit Corps (BDCC) have teamed up with southern Vermont communities to bring more than 290 refugees to this region. In just a few short years, their impact on our communities has been significant.

World Learning's Brattleboro campus, which also hosts the School for International Training, offers a welcoming environment for refugees, fostering community engagement and cultural exchange. State funding for this initiative is an investment in our community's future, aligning with Vermont's broader goals of economic development and population growth.

It represents a strategic investment in our community, promising a substantial return for our region, both economically and socially.

As of November 2023, 90% of the refugees who came to this region have chosen to settle here permanently, with 98% of them securing permanent housing within four months.

Employment rates are also impressive: 83% of employable refugees have found jobs with more than 49 local businesses, contributing over $3.7 million in taxable wages, boosting our local economy and helping combat workforce shortages.

This increase in taxable wages translates to enhanced public services and infrastructure, benefiting all Vermonters. The cycle of economic growth is further fueled as these new Vermonters spend their earnings locally, boosting retail, housing, and service sectors.

* * *

By providing a stable foundation through access to transitional housing for refugees as they transition into our community, the state is investing in a more dynamic, diverse, and economically robust southern Vermont. The World Learning and SIT campus, with its history of educational excellence and global engagement, offers the ideal setting for such a project, promoting not simply a shelter but also a place of learning, cross-cultural exchange, and greater community integration.

This initiative aligns seamlessly with Vermont's broader goals of stimulating economic development and reversing population decline. By welcoming refugees, we position ourselves as a forward-thinking, inclusive community, attractive to both new residents and businesses.

The ripple effect of this decision extends beyond the immediate benefits to refugees; it signals a commitment to growth, diversity, and economic innovation.

Furthermore, the successful integration of refugees can serve as a model for other communities, positioning Vermont as a leader in addressing global challenges through local solutions. This leadership can attract additional federal funding, private investments, and philanthropic contributions, further enhancing our community's development.

The return on investment from state funding of refugee housing is not limited to economic metrics. The social and cultural enrichment that comes with a more diverse population fosters a richer, more vibrant community life.

* * *

As Gov. Scott said in his recent State of the State address, incoming refugees are "contributing to our communities, workforce, and economy, while pursing the American dream."

State funding for temporary housing for refugees on the World Learning campus is more than a humanitarian gesture; it is a strategic investment in the future of southern Vermont. By supporting this initiative, we can stimulate economic growth, address labor shortages, enrich our cultural landscape, and set an example of inclusive community development.

Let's seize this opportunity to demonstrate that in Brattleboro, and indeed all of Vermont, recognize the intrinsic value and potential of every individual who seeks to call our state home.

This Voices Viewpoint was submitted to The Commons.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates