The global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has upended many lives and economies. It would be remiss to not mention this huge event, and to remark on how it, and future shocks, will continue to impact housing in the greater Upper Valley region.
It can be tempting to say that such an event ‘changes everything’, ‘was unforeseen’, or has altered society in some basic way, but of course none of these are true. A pandemic has long been anticipated and planned for, and most things have not changed, including the way we operate our economy.
Our basic housing challenge remains the same: we lack thousands of homes of the type and at the price that our residents need.
Despite the historic amounts of government pandemic funding to shore up the economy, virtually all government responses have been emergency and temporary measures. The structure of the problem of housing in the Region has not essentially changed, though the scope and scale have. We began the pandemic with thousands of households looking at rent or ownership costs beyond their means, with homes that are unsafe from mold or lead, with homes not suited for the elderly, with many commuting too far, and most homes wasting energy. Those conditions, and the reasons for them, remain. And now, additional stress has been put on the situation.
As jobs have been lost, household income for many has worsened. Some of the loss of income has been temporarily blunted by extra unemployment payments, but the basic incomes of residents have not increased in any permanent way. Housing security has been temporarily helped by moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures, and there have been government grants to cover some missed rents and mortgage payments, but for many households these bills are still piling up in enormous amounts. Without permanent solutions we should expect increased evictions and foreclosures when the ‘emergency’ is declared over. Indeed, what we have is a common situation in disasters, where suddenly the numerous but scattered pre-existing, routine ‘emergencies’ of people and their housing needs benefit from the attention to a larger emergency (in this case a pandemic). What had been myriad individual private emergencies have now coalesced into a single issue (the threat of losing housing) and is now in the public realm, but only so far as that larger ‘emergency’ is still happening.
For those already pushed into homelessness, there has been a surge of funding for temporary shelter, including some funding to actually acquire hotels (as that can be cheaper than renting them for years), but no structural shift has occurred to fund such support against homelessness permanently. We can expect this extra funding to dry up as the pandemic is eventually declared ‘over’.
While many household incomes fell in 2020, the prices for homes to rent or buy, along with building supplies, have risen. This has benefited those who already own housing, as they can sell in a high market. Schools have gained enrollment in places. Yet, for the focus of the Keys to the Valley project, this price escalation has worsened our housing crisis. Some of the very limited rental housing supply has been taken up by more college students living off campus, and for sale homes have been snapped up by people fleeing urban areas perceived as less safe. In terms of affordability, increased property values will also generally increase tax pressure on those that own and remain cost-burdened.
The region has been protected from some of this gentrification in the past by our remoteness from employment centers in major cities. Our local major employment center of Lebanon/Hanover has created significant housing demand in those towns and surrounding communities, but that has been limited by the scale of local employers and how far employees want to commute. Now, one change that may have longstanding ramifications for our housing situation is that many white-collar jobs have gone ‘remote’, enabled by broadband and other technology. This ability to work remotely means that some local jobs can now be filled by those that live far away, that local commuters might push further into rural areas if they only need to go into the office once a week, and that new residents with higher incomes can relocate here and leave more expensive housing markets behind, but keep their job in Boston or New York or anywhere. Some of these people and jobs will stay here, never to return to cities. This can bring needed young people and economic development to rural communities, but if it happens inside the same structural system that had previously created our housing crisis, we can expect that as far as housing goes, it will only worsen the crisis.
Just as the pandemic was foreseen, other events lurk out there in the future with predictable impacts. Sea levels will rise on the coasts, drought in the American southwest will worsen, wildfire in the arid west will threaten more areas, and of course the current pandemic will continue for several more months (and future pandemics await). The towns of the greater Upper Valley region have already been identified in national studies as some of the best places in the entire nation to weather these coming conditions, and international migration is also likely (Learn more at the Climate Resilience Screening Index).
As the pandemic shows, those that can easily relocate to the safety and quality of life of the region are largely higher income. The same will be true for climate change or other impacts. And the resulting strains will be those common to any area that suddenly is desirable. Towns, cities, and regions will need to plan to counter these changes in order to limit displacement or further cost burdens of current residents. Equity concerns mean we should also play our part in welcoming new neighbors that do not bring wealth with them, but that can bring more needed diversity (Learn more at the Connecticut River Valley Climate Migration report). These are the same challenges we face today, and through smart planning we can harness these pressures to make our communities stronger.