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In Ski Towns Second Homes Are Going Up, But Affordable Housing Is Hard To Come By

A person wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt leans over a beam on a sawhorse at a construction site where a home is being built. It's sunny, and a person stands next to a structure being set up in the background with dark trees behind it.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
The company RH Log Works is booked two years out as a post-pandemic housing boom fuels growth in Wilmington. But at the same time the lack of affordable and middle-income housing is reaching a crisis stage in the Deerfield Valley.

There’s a housing crunch all across this country, and it's also gotten pretty bad in a lot of parts of Vermont.

But the situation is especially acute in ski towns, where property values are skyrocketing and new homes are being built, while affordable housing gets harder to come by.

Earlier this year Anna Roth hired a bunch of new teachers at Twin Valley Middle High School in Whitingham, where she’s the principal.

She was pretty excited about the new staff members, and thought everything was set until she heard from one of her new hires.

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“This teacher in particular accepted the job, and is moving from down south,” she said one day recently, while preparing for the new school year. “And so [he] came here to look at places and emailed me before he left and said, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to be able to find a place. I’m ‘gonna keep looking, but do you have any suggestions?’”

Roth’s school serves the Deerfield Valley. Which is near Mount Snow and three other ski mountains. The region is fueled by a year-round tourist economy.

Housing was tight here before the pandemic.

The nearby town of Wilmington did an analysis a few years ago that found that more than 60% of its homes are vacant part of the year and used seasonally.

And because the region is close to Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, a lot of people escaped north and bought up properties in the area over the past year.

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Wilmington Planning Commission Chairwoman Meg Staloff says proposed changes to the town's zoning regulations will hopefully allow for more senior housing in town. The town will hold its first public hearings on the code later this month.

Roth says five homes sold on her street in Wilmington recently, and every one went to a second home owner.

“It’s no secret that there’s not a lot of housing around here,” said Roth. “Especially with the real estate boom that has been happening in the last year. Houses that in the past were rentals for local people, those people are choosing to do AirBnB. I reached out to two people who I know who have rentals and they said they moved into the direction of AirBnB.”

Short-term rentals in the Deerfield Valley have increased by more than 500% since 2016.

And so for teachers, service workers and manual laborers in the Deerfield Valley, it’s getting tougher to find a place to live.

But for people involved with real estate and home building, it’s a very different story.

Ryan Holton’s family has been building new homes around the valley for decades.

And he says he’s never seen it this busy.

“It’s booming, yeah. Definitely busy,” Holton said, while taking a break at a work site in Wilmington. “I mean, we saw a big surge with, you know, kind of, people trying to escape the cities and come up here and build houses. And I think for them, they first looked at the housing market. Once they bought all the houses, then they bought all the land. So, we’re actually booking into 2024 at this point which is pretty extraordinary. So yeah, it’s booming.”

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The post-COVID housing boom in ski towns has shined an even brighter light on the disparity in new home building across the state

Vermont already has the second highest rate of seasonal homes in the country, and according to a recent statewide housing report, that number has been creeping up every year of late.

But the same report found that outside of Chittenden County, new owner-occupied construction is at a virtual standstill.

The report says that if the current trend continues, only about half of the need will be met for people who want to buy a new house.

Second homeowners are part of the community in the Deerfield Valley. They serve on volunteer boards, contribute to local causes, and spend their money in restaurants and stores.

And nobody here will complain too much about this new real estate money that’s surging through the local economy

But Gretchen Havreluk, an economic consultant working with the town of Wilmington, says something has to give.

“It is a crisis. We need to address this,” she said.

“The circle of you know, work force, housing, the economy, you know, like all of that is in a circle. The key piece was really housing. You know, like, when you think about it, what comes first?”
Gretchen Havreluk, economic consultant for Wilmington

Havreluk says small towns like Wilmington miss out on big affordable housing projects that end up being built in nearby towns like Bennington or Brattleboro, where there's a larger population.

And she says, while short term rentals like AirBnB bring in tourists, the local economy can’t thrive if there’s no one around to teach in the schools, serve in the restaurants or cut the lawns.

“The circle of you know, workforce, housing, the economy, you know, like, all of that is in a circle,” Havreluk said. “The key piece was really housing. You know, like, when you think about it, what comes first?”

More from VPR: The New 'Beckoning Country?' City Buyers Eye Vermont Property As COVID Sanctuary

The town of Wilmington is about to hold public meetings to introduce proposed changes to its zoning code, which would make it easier to develop senior housing within the downtown area.

Wilmington Planning Commission chairwoman Meg Staloff says for a very long time, towns like Wilmington focused on retaining their downtown charm, and keeping low and moderate income housing away from Main Street.

She said the housing crisis is forcing towns to find ways to encourage development.

“So we’re not talking about sprawl necessarily, but we’re saying, 'Can we fit this in our community in a way that makes sense?'” Staloff said. “And so, I think in part, it’s sort of because we’ve been so focused on the anti-sprawl, that we have created these vibrant village centers, but now we need to incorporate housing within or just on the outsides of those centers if that’s what people want.”

The idea, she says, is that seniors who are living out in the country might want to move to town, freeing up properties for new families to move in.

Their first hearing for the new zoning regulations is later this month.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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