Labor Squeezing Into Housing

by Bruce Edwards, Vermont Business Magazine

There’s no shortage of jobs in Lamoille County. However, finding workers to fill those jobs continues to be a problem not only in the county but statewide.

Exacerbating the worker shortage is a housing shortage or at least affordable housing for the average worker.

In Lamoille County, addressing the affordable housing issue falls on a number of organizations and at the top of that list is the Lamoille Housing Partnership and its executive director Jim Levinsky.

Levinsky said the strength of the local economy led by Stowe and Morrisville is definitely a factor when it comes to housing.

“Lamoille County is in one of those fortunate places where I think it actually has some growth happening,” Levinsky said. “So those things are attracting people to the area and that’s been creating a housing crunch so to speak.”

In the resort town of Stowe, he said workers have trouble finding housing that’s affordable.

Levinsky said a recent housing needs assessment of the county backs up that data.

He said, add to that an aging population trying to downsize and move into town “where they can have easier access to services, be able to walk around, use the public transportation.”

As an affordable housing developer, Lamoille Housing Partnership is engaged in developing a 24-unit project in downtown Morrisville.

Levinsky said there is also some private development going on but that’s not coming close to meeting the need.

“If you think about supply and demand, there’s basically a 1 to 2 percent vacancy rate, meaning there’s few apartments available and a lot of demand for those apartments so it pushes the local rents up as well,” he said. He put a healthy vacancy rate at around 10 percent, which means apartments are available. It also helps keep the rents in line but not make it so hard that landlords can’t make a profit, he said.

Levinsky said the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the county is between $1,400 and $1,600 a month, plus utilities.

The Lamoille Housing Partnership owns a dozen properties and just under 300 units in the county.

The apartments run by the Partnership rent between $700 and $900 a month, including heat.

The Partnership keeps its eye on village lots that are zoned for multifamily housing and have access to municipal water, sewer and electric.

“So we’re looking for those village lots and they’re becoming harder and harder to find,” Levinsky said. “We haven’t been able to find anything in Stowe.”

He said the Partnership believes in supporting downtowns and multifamily housing is a good way to do that and not create sprawl.

One example is the former Arthur’s Department Store in Morrisville.

The Partnership redeveloped the property into 18 apartments on two upper floors with two commercial spaces on the ground floor.

Unlike many other parts of the state, Lamoille County has experienced a population spurt of sorts.

Tasha Wallis, executive director of the Lamoille County Planning Commission, attributed the growth to the county becoming more of a bedroom community.

In turn, that growth puts additional pressure on housing. “There is pressure on housing because what we’re seeing with the growth obviously is that people working in Chittenden County and central Vermont, they’re moving further away for more affordable housing,” Wallis said.

Wallis said the county’s population has grown from 24,475 in 2010 to 25,300 today.

She noted the increase is at odds with the state as a whole, which is losing population.

She also said the median age in the county is 40.5 years versus 42.8 for the state.

Wallis is said more people commute outside the region to work than the statewide average.

For homebuyers, it remains a seller’s market, said Dody Day, president of the Lamoille Area Board of Realtors.

Day said single-family home sales in the county were down slightly last year from 2018. There were 317 homes sold in 2019 compared to 332 homes in 2018, she said, citing MLS figures.

She also said the number of days a home stays on the market has “gone way down.”

As of mid-January, there were 145 homes listed for sale, which is less than a six-month inventory.

“So it’s still a huge seller’s market,” said Day, a broker with Century 21 Jack Associates – Trombley & Day Group.

The low inventory is particularly acute in the first-time homebuyer price category, she said.

The median sales price has jumped, reflecting supply and demand. Last year, the median sales price in the county was $289,000 compared to $264,000 in 2018 and $250,000 in 2017.

Condo sales also dipped last year. There were 83 condos sold last year compared to 95 in 2018. The median sales price, however, increased to $285,000 last year from $261,000 in 2018.

Stowe as a resort community has helped drive sales as has Vail’s acquisition of Stowe, Day said.

She said there’s more demand for housing north and surrounding Stowe where homes are less expensive.

Both Levinsky and Day said areas of the county have attracted people who work in Chittenden County but can’t afford to live there.

Day said because of its affordability, Cambridge in particularly is attractive to workers commuting to Chittenden County, the state’s most populous county and the state’s economic hub.

“I see a lot of the Chittenden folks moving there in order to commute to work,” she said.

Day said she expects 2020 will be a carbon copy of last year, with demand remaining strong, helped along by low interest rates.