Pomfret to pilot financial incentives to boost workforce housing

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 6/15/2022 10:19:13 PM
Modified: 6/15/2022 10:17:11 PM

POMFRET — Town residents, concerned about the affordability of homes in their community, are considering local incentives to encourage property owners to create rental housing designated for people with moderate incomes.

In both the Upper Valley and nationwide, the lack of affordable housing options for “the missing middle,” or working professionals with moderate to median income levels, is contributing to a workforce shortage across critical industries, from medical care to education to the trades.

Pomfret, a town with 916 residents and a median household income of $93,000, according to U.S. census data, may seem an unlikely target for adding middle-income workforce housing. The median home cost ranges between $450,000 to $555,000, with some active listings exceeding $2 million, according to real estate data. Many homes serve as second homes for seasonal use and most rentals are intended for short-term vacation stays, according to Pomfret residents.

“Pomfret has become a place mostly only available for wealthy people to live,” said resident Anne Bower, a retired college literature professor and now tai chi instructor. “And I find that disturbing.”

Bower, who moved to Pomfret in 2005, said she is “irked” by the lack of income equity in the community today.

Resident Joanna Long, whose father purchased 100 acres of woodlands in Pomfret in 1947 for $4,000 (the equivalent to $52,000 today) said the town has changed dramatically from her childhood memories. Most of Pomfret’s residents in the 1950s were farmers, along with some artists, Long said. The community was tightly knit and people were quick to help one another when in need.

Houses have cropped up in places where they were once few, Long said, though these properties are not necessarily affordable to the middle class today.

“I perceive an unwillingness in the town at large to continue building more affordable homes,” Long said.

Jill Davis, a housing development planner in Woodstock, said communities like Pomfret and Woodstock can increase their offering of affordable workforce housing without building new homes, by incentivizing people to rent their homes or attached apartments to middle-income professionals at below the market rate.

Woodstock, through its Economic Development Commission, a sustainable planning group, plans to launch two pilot programs next month, and a third program in the fall, aimed at offering financial incentives to property owners to create rental units specifically for middle-income professionals.

While these programs are available only to Woodstock residents, Davis said they can serve as models for Pomfret and neighboring communities to develop their own.

The first program, the Rental Incentive Pilot Program, seeks to encourage landlords of short-term rental units to rent instead to longer-term residents. This program will pay landlords $3,000 for each unit with a one-year lease or $7,000 for each unit with a two-year lease. In exchange, the landlord agrees to cap the maximum rent for the units to $1,000 for a studio, $1,500 for a one-bedroom or $1,000 per bedroom in a shared multi-bedroom unit.

Property owners mustrent these units only to someone working locally in the Upper Valley region.

A second pilot program will offer grants of up to $10,000 to Woodstock homeowners to construct an attached dwelling unit (ADU), a secondary residential unit to the main home, such as a basement apartment or a separate unit on the property. Like the rental incentive program, the unit must be rented to someone who works in the Upper Valley region at the affordable rate determined by the commission.

Davis said that many homes already have the potential to be converted into an ADU without building an addition. Spare bedrooms, for example, might only need to be equipped with a private bathroom and a private entrance to qualify as an accessory dwelling unit.

To assist prospective program users, the Woodstock Economic Development Commission plans to add a third program in the fall that will provide professional support to the property owners with the process, including permitting, loan programs and contractor procurement.

“Most people (we surveyed) said they wanted help with the early steps, such as the permitting process,” said Davis, who acknowledged that the process for constructing an accessory dwelling unit is “almost as complicated” as for building a new house.

Another program, funded by the Woodstock Economic Development Commission, assists with screening rental candidates and placing tenants in rental properties.

Davis said the commission currently has enough money to fund up to three ADU project grants.

Kevin Geiger, of the Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Commission, said the Upper Valley region, including Lebanon, needs roughly 5,000 affordable housing units to meet the region’s workforce needs.

The programs being launched in Woodstock do not expect to contribute a substantial number of units — a 30 to 300-unit apartment building would not be feasible in Woodstock or Pomfret, Geiger said.

“Nibbling at the problem” is the only approach here, Geiger said. “But a lot of nibbling, if you look at piranhas, adds up.”

Davis said Woodstock has not researched the interest of rental owners to join the rental incentive program, though states that use this model have demonstrated success.

“None of these programs are new,” Davis explained. “We just looked around (at models) and copied what we could.”

Davis said that encouraging people to contribute to the affordable housing inventory will involve “pulling on heartstrings.” Those expressing concern will also need to reflect about their own willingness to provide housing on their own property.

Geiger said the region needs to also work on educating communities better about what accessory dwelling units are and why affordable housing is critical to the local workforce.

“Our communities (need to) understand, if we do not produce these units, we will stop functioning as a community,” Geiger said. “And I mean literally stop functioning. When the roads stop being plowed, the classes stop being taught and the meals stop being served.”

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