Is our population growing because of the pandemic? And what impact are COVID transplants having on their new communities?
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Brave Little State is VPR’s people-powered journalism project. We answer questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by our audience — because we think our journalism is better when you’re a part of it.
Today’s question comes from Mike Leonard, of Montpelier. He’s a nurse, and his husband is an elementary school teacher. So they’re both on the front lines of the pandemic — and Mike’s question is about the pandemic, too.
Here’s what he asked us: “What is actually going on with real estate due to the pandemic in Vermont? Is Vermont’s population booming all of a sudden?”
“I have a couple of friends who work in real estate,” Mike says, “and they say that they’ve been busier than they’ve ever been before. I have other, kind of, young Vermont friends who are looking to buy a home, and it seems to be, like, a market that is not very kind to first-home buyers right now.”
So Mike’s wondering about this trend. And the impact that COVID transplants might have on Vermont:
“What is that doing to our population? What is that doing to our school districts? Like, are the people who are moving here — if indeed they are — are they looking to stay? Or are they looking to just sort of have an apocalyptic bunker until all of this is over?”
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Here’s the thing. Vermont’s COVID “boom” may be in the zeitgeist right now, but the data to back that narrative up just doesn’t exist. At least, not yet.
And trust us when we say we tried pretty hard to find some cold, hard numbers.
Our first stop was the Vermont Department of Taxes, which tracks the number of properties that are bought and sold in the state of Vermont, by way of what are called property transfer tax filings. If there really is a boom, presumably we would see an uptick in those filings. In fact, the number of property transfers from March through August of this year was down compared to the same time period in 2019 — down by close to 20%, according to Commissioner of Taxes Craig Bolio.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we aren’t experiencing a boom. Bolio says there could be a lag in the processing of these filings, due to safeguards put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. So, just because we haven’t seen a spike in property sales yet doesn’t mean we won’t in the future.
At the same time, the property transfer data doesn’t tell us whether the person who purchased the property is coming in from out of state, or if the sale was simply between two Vermonters. It also doesn’t shine a light on the number of second-homeowners who may have decamped to their Vermont getaways for the duration.
So, strike one.
Next, thanks to a suggestion from our question-asker Mike, we called up the Agency of Education. If lots of new families are coming to Vermont, then wouldn’t there be an increase in student enrollment? Unfortunately, the agency says they won’t have firm statewide numbers on fall enrollment until January or February of 2021. Strike two.
How about Vermont’s Department of Motor Vehicles? All those COVID transplants must need new licenses and plates, right? Well, DMV Commissioner Wanda Minoli says they don’t track that data on new Vermonters, either. Strike three.
Now, you may have personally witnessed new folks moving into your community since the pandemic began. You may have already befriended some (good job!). Certainly there are folks coming here, for various reasons. To help answer Mike’s question, we talked to several.
Cat Garland and JT Look purchased a century-old farmhouse on the outskirts of downtown Rutland in July.
JT had previously been living in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, working at a bike shop. He’s already running a new business out of his garage here, called Rutland City Bikes.
Cat had been in Brooklyn, New York, where she worked as a high school teacher. Now, she’s a professor at the Rutland campus of Community College of Vermont.
Mike wanted to know: What compelled Cat and JT to move to Vermont in the middle of a pandemic? They said the pandemic itself was a big reason.
“The pandemic really brought out not-great things about the city and shut down all the good things about the city,” Cat says. “And it actually just kind of made it easier for me to be like, ‘Yeah, I miss Vermont. I miss the outdoors. I miss the space. I miss that it’s not crowded. I miss the night sky.’”
JT hasn’t changed the Pennsylvania license plates on his car yet, and Cat says parking in the local Hannaford’s lot is “not fun” — they can feel others eyeing their out-of-state plates.
“I feel like carrying a sign that’s like, ‘I have quarantined! I’ve been here since July!’” Cat says.
Both Cat and JT have lived in Vermont before, and they’d both been playing with the idea of moving back here. COVID-19 just happened to expedite their arrival.
And that was the case for another COVID transplant we talked to, named Siobhan Kelley.
“I never would have thought in 2020 I’d move back to Vermont,” Siobhan says.
She resides in Williston now. She was previously living in Somerville, Massachusetts, working for an international NGO called Last Mile Health.
Siobhan grew up in Vermont, and says she always wanted to move back to the state at some point. But she figured leaving Boston would require a major professional sacrifice.
Until suddenly, it didn’t.
“Our office in Boston office is closed indefinitely," Siobhan says, "so I asked if I could move to Vermont and just continue working for the organization from Vermont for the future, which has been great."
She’s since been cleared by her employer to work from home permanently, and so she’s here for good now.
“That’s definitely something that’s been a nice kind of highlight of 2020 in such a hard year,” Siobhan says.
Ali Jalili moved to Vermont from Washington, D.C., with his wife and two sons in March. They’d decided awhile ago that they wanted to make Vermont home. But when COVID hit, they fast-tracked the move.
Before coming to Vermont, they’d lived all over the place, as career foreign services workers for the U.S. State Department: Columbia, Kenya, Mexico, Russia, Thailand, Canada.
As Ali approached retirement, which happens at the tender age of 50 for foreign service workers, he began looking for a place to put down real roots for the first time in his adult life.
And he says he started to fall in love with the idea of Burlington, Vermont.
“So then just based on, literally, online research, it sort of started to rise to the top of places,” he says.
Just about every elected official in Vermont will tell you the state’s biggest challenge is its demographics — that the proportion of old people to young people is on pace to become terrifyingly lopsided, and could take a toll on everything from our economy to our tax revenues to public schools.
Vermont’s school-age population has dropped by more than 20,000 over the past two decades, and according to U.S. Census data, Vermont is one of the oldest states in the nation.
Concerns about the aging population are so pronounced that about two years ago, the Legislature passed a bill that literally paid working-age people to move here.
But for people like Siobhan Kelley or JT Look or Cat Garland, COVID made the case for Vermont better than any state promotional ever could. Who needs remote worker incentives when you’ve got a pandemic?
“I think if you’ll talk to realtors, you’ll find they are very busy,” says Lyle Jepson, executive director of the Chamber and Economic Development of the Rutland Region. “They’re very busy fielding calls and they’re very busy actually doing home sales.”
Jepson and his organization have been trying to years to get more out-of-staters to move to Rutland. They developed a program to advance the cause, called “Real Rutland.”
“And it was prompted by the serious concern that we had in Rutland County and around the state about population decline, and how that was affecting communities, how it was affecting businesses,” he says.
Jepson bought into the benefits of population growth a long time ago. And if Vermont’s relative success with COVID-19 is the thing that brings people in, then he says Rutland is waiting with open arms.
“People are … recognizing that we have not taken control of COVID, because you can’t, but we are doing everything we can to keep everyone safe,” he says. “People are searching for safety right now.”
Searching for safety perhaps, but also a sense of belonging to the Vermont communities they’ve moved into.
“I thought, this is a place where I could sort of contribute in some meaningful way to community," Ali Jalili says, "in a tangible way that I could potentially see results."
This sense of civic responsibility to a place where you’re still getting your bearings is something Cat Garland and JT Look, in Rutland, feel as well.
“I’ve always been a teacher and an educator, and that’s really important to me,” Cat says. “And JT’s always been working with the public, doing bike shops or different things like that.”
Cat and JT have been reading stories about the alleged influx of new arrivals to Vermont. And they say it’s something they’ve been thinking a lot about lately, because they watched their old neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Philadelphia undergo rapid gentrification.
“Some improvements are good, but it changes the fabric of the community and it changes who can afford to live there. And I think for both communities it was heartbreaking to see who had to move out,” Cat says.
Our question-asker Mike Leonard asked Cat and JT: If young professionals like them start gravitating toward Vermont, what does it mean for the people that already live here?
“I hope that the outcome is positive, of course,” Cat says. “I hope people can bring in new ideas that fit in, or new energy, or just more hands to help, right? More people to volunteer at the food center, or different things like that.”
Ali Jalili says he sees volunteerism as a sort of entry point to his new community.
“I have just finished training to join the community justice center as a panel member on their restorative justice panels,” he says. “In fact, I’m going to participate in one as an observer tonight.”
Before moving here, Ali says he heard Vermont had a reputation for not wanting outsiders to move here. But he thinks new arrivals like him can breathe life into the state.
“I kind of feel like people don’t adequately appreciate the value of new blood, new life, more people, you know?” he says. “You need more taxpayers. You need more kids in schools. You need more families. That’s what makes community.”
And new arrivals like Siobhan Kelley don’t just want to reside here. They want to be a part of the place.
“I really look forward to being able to get more involved in the community, support more progressive causes locally, and really get to know more of my new neighbors,” Siobhan says.
While Vermont lacks the statewide data needed to quantify the volume of in-migration since the pandemic began, in some towns, the COVID boom is real. Windham Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Bill Anton has seen firsthand evidence at the local level.
“It’s really exciting. I mean, it’s a huge influx of people that are super curious about the Vermont lifestyle — they’re trying to see, is this a long-term thing, or is this a short-term thing?” Anton says.
He’s been watching these changes play out through two of the elementary schools in his supervisory union:
“Dover was expecting to have 86 students enrolled in the fall, and they have 117 — and this is for elementary, pre-K through 6,” Anton says. “Wardsboro was expecting to have 40, and they have 48.”
That’s an unusually large increase in student enrollment, and it came after nearly 30 families moved to the area during the pandemic. Anton says most of them are from out of state, and that life in small-town Vermont is kind of blowing their minds.
“Because people are really curious — what is a board meeting? Because if they come from New York City or if they come from New Jersey, board meetings are televised, they are five people that are behind podiums. They don’t really know those people, the public doesn’t have a real opportunity just to have conversations,” he says. “It feels so much more intimate in Vermont.”
Anton has a pretty rosy view of what these new arrivals mean for the region.
“I’m probably being very optimistic, but I don’t foresee a lot of tension, because the people that have come are excited about what is being delivered,” he says. “And the community, whether it was pre-planned or just the regular way of doing business, they’re ready for people to come.”
But what if these new COVID transplants are just the tip of the iceberg? What if even more people relocate to these towns? And the schools have more kids than they know what to do with?
“I would love that problem. I would absolutely love 200 people to move into different towns and figure out how to navigate housing, and how to navigate school, and how to navigate transportation, and how to navigate broadband expansion,” Anton says. “And there would probably be some growing pains. But those are good growing pains, because you’re growing.”
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Thanks to Mike Leonard for the great question, and everyone who got in touch to share their reasons for moving to Vermont. We welcome you all! And if you want to learn more about your new home state, check out our archive and ask a question at bravelittlestate.org. We also have a newsletter you might like. And we’re on Instagram and Twitter @bravestatevt.
This episode was produced by Peter Hirschfeld, with editing from Mark Davis and Angela Evancie. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed and we have engineering support from Chris Albertine. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund. You can support us with a gift at bravelittlestate.org/donate. Or just tell your friends to listen.