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Editorial: Independent Living

It’s not exactly breaking news that affordable rental housing is hard to come by in the Upper Valley, but last Sunday’s story on the subject by staff writer Aimee Caruso illuminated both the statistical and human dimensions of the problem, in particular as it affects young adults.

As she reported, a regional planning study indicates that 46 percent of renters under age 35 in the Upper Valley spend more than the recommended limit of 30 percent of their income on housing, as compared with 42 percent of all renters.

Looked at another way, a single renter making $10 an hour could afford $520 in rent, but rental housing in the range between $500 and $600 a month accounted for less than 2 percent of the entire stock of rental housing locally in 2010.

“What we continue to find is the housing stock does not match the people,” says Kevin Geiger, a senior planner with the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission. More exactly, there’s a mismatch between what people earn and what they have to pay for housing, a gap that has been worsened by a 6 percent decline in household income among renters and a 3 percent rise in rental prices nationally between 2007 and 2010.

So a lack of affordable rental housing might be as much a function of employers failing to pay a living wage as it is a failure of developers to build more housing that low- to middle-income wage earners in the Upper Valley can afford.

In any case, this is further evidence that the Great Recession has been and continues to be a disaster for young adults, its malign effects rolling through all aspects of their lives. Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst for Demos, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington, has calculated that last December, nearly a fifth of all young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 were unemployed, underemployed or had dropped out of the work force. They are also burdened by mountains of student loan debt. The combination is no doubt a prime reason why, as the Pew Research Center reported last May, 29 percent of young adults ages 25-34 nationally were either living with their parents or had moved back in temporarily in recent years. And in January, Pew reported that more than one in seven parents ages 40-59 had provided some or primary financial support to a child over the age of 18 during the past year.

Supporting oneself, living independently and starting a family are traditional markers on the road to adulthood, but far too many young people these days remain spinning their wheels while the world passes them by. Putting one’s life on hold for a few years after high school or college makes it all the harder to start doing things such as saving for retirement or the education of one’s own future children that are the key to the future.

Much has been made by demographers and state officials in both Vermont and New Hampshire about the rapid graying of the population and the threat it poses to the economic and social vitality of the Twin States. There is no one key to attracting young people to relocate or persuading those who grew up here to stay here. But affordable housing, good wages and economic opportunity are a big part of the answer if the Upper Valley is serious about not becoming old are heart.