Kevin Lawrence: One Landlord’s First-Hand Experience With Vermont’s Apartment Crisis
This review is from Kevin Lawrence of Newbury, owner of two rental homes. He worked for 34 years as a teacher in a public school.
The housing crisis in Vermont is recognized by all with very little real change visible on our landscape. As a landlord with high standards for our modest rental units and a recent opening for rental, I tested public response to the advertisement of a two-bedroom unit in rural Vermont in mid-May this year.
The response from needy Vermont workers has been overwhelming.
First, I went the old fashioned way in advertising in two editions of local newspapers. We know the demographics and, as expected, I only received two inquiries in the first two days, both from older candidates.
So, I hit Facebook and Craigslist at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning with my rental ad. By 8 p.m., I had responded to 40 inquiries, which forced me to shut down online advertisements.
People kept contacting me for days afterward, asking, “Where did your ad go? or, “A friend had a screenshot of this ad. Is it available?”
“Available” seems to have a predictable outcome for consumers with money, good credit and background checks, agreeable behaviors, etc. However, in the midst of this housing crisis, I quickly realized that I would be denying tenancy to dozens of genuinely good candidates to fill a vacant position.
The parade of invited and scheduled apartment seekers took place the following Sunday.
From 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., my wife and I escorted 25 families and/or individuals through the rental unit, one group at a time. The stories we heard ranged from those who were really impatient to those who were extremely desperate.
A multi-generational family had three weeks before being evicted by a new landlord. Half a dozen viable candidates lived with their parents, some sleeping on air mattresses in living rooms. Families with young children described living in a second-floor apartment with no place to play outside.
Many people were driving too far to get to work, hoping to be closer to their work in Bradford or St. Johnsbury. Mobility for the most part seemed unavailable.
The hardest part of meeting qualified, financially stable people for tenancies—only one of whom could sign our lease—is how many people have demonstrated all of the characteristics that landlords admire. Many said they had $3,000 on them — first month, last month, and a security deposit — to sign a contract that day. All applications showed evidence of strong employment or retirement income. Pets were rarely a hindrance, despite my history of saying “no” to people with big, loud, or wild dogs.
With few exceptions, applicants were neat, respectful, polite, and outgoing. They were often everything we needed in a tenant-landlord relationship. All I would need to help out would be 10-15 more units to rent, which is not an option for me.
An analysis of the origins of this housing crisis here would not open up any new ground for solving this problem. Waiting for a federal response seems futile. Employers such as our local Cottage Hospital (in Woodsville, New Hampshire) can cite how many times attracting new qualified, well-paid employees to our area fails when looking for a place to live.
Our weary lawmakers went home in early May, imagining they had balanced the budget and done all they could for Vermonters. However, the work of our leaders – local and state – who are working to solve this housing crisis must continue.
Planning boards at the local city level are expected to review their zoning rules this summer, without waiting for 10-year review periods. Existing homeowners should be given more flexibility and incentives to fit ancillary apartments into larger homes. The two-acre requirements for building new homes needs careful consideration and changes to allow homes on smaller plots.
State lawmakers should craft a loan program that encourages residential development, allowing the state to provide income that people repay as qualified projects develop to house Vermonters in need.
The consequences of inaction will result in serious economic failures for our aging population. Tax revenues from new entrants to the labor market will continue to stagnate. The professional class, renowned for its mobility, will move to where the housing and jobs are. Our hospitals will continue to bear the burden of “travelling staff” who cannot find permanent local accommodation.
Energy independence initiatives will not realize their potential because people drive too far between work and home. Young families without secure homes will endure hardships and indignities that will make an American dream seem out of reach. The school population will continue to decline.
Despite recent housing value inflation, it’s not 2008 anymore. We can’t bounce back without an all-out effort to create new housing for Vermont workers who want to stay in this Green Mountain state.