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Column: Housing is a problem we all need to help solve

For the Valley News
Published: 5/4/2021 10:20:59 AM
Modified: 5/5/2021 10:49:31 AM

Is whether someone can find an affordable place to live in the area more than just a personal problem? We think so. It is a problem for businesses, communities and the entire region, and that means we should all rightly step in and help with solutions.

Our demographics show that the region lacks young families and diversity. Without smaller, affordably priced homes we won’t keep or attract young families, and they are the reasons that we have schools. Without more students, schools will continue to struggle to fill classes and will continue to consolidate, leaving a hole in civic life. For many small communities, schools are also their largest employer.

Young families mean younger workers. Right now, the region’s workforce is aging into retirement and needs replacements if we want to keep the businesses we have, let alone expand them or attract new ones. As Seth Leonard of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency likes to point out, “houses are where jobs go to sleep at night.”

Lacking racial and ethnic diversity means that the area is losing out on the fastest growing parts of the nation’s population, and with it the talents and vibrancy they bring. If we want to attract diverse young families, entrepreneurs and skilled workers, they will need a place to live. We can view their housing needs as a problem for them to solve, as long as we are fine if they solve it elsewhere.

The lack of housing is our largest business problem. While some businesses will be able to hire remote workers, most will still need employees that are actually here, and that new hire won’t be able to live here if they can’t find a house. This is not just an issue when filling entry-level positions (which we all know are essential to the economy), but also a problem for employers in the region looking for nurses, engineers, teachers and professors.

Over 20,000 of our current households struggle to afford their homes. Too much of their money is going to the high cost of rent or mortgage, and not to new clothes, a nice dinner, other discretionary spending or savings. And so, our businesses that depend on local customers are hurt, and residents are not able to save up funds.

But why should towns care about this? Towns are employers and face the same issues that private businesses have in attracting employees because of a lack of housing. Most towns also rely on volunteers to function — from the fire department to the little league. Volunteers are year-round residents who live and work nearby and have a little extra time they can give to their communities. If someone commutes a long way or holds two jobs, they have less time to volunteer.

Towns want their village centers and downtowns to be lively places, and that happens when people live there, not just work there or visit. That concentration of residents keeps the local market and pharmacy open, makes the street safe, provides the neighbors who watch out for each other and creates the feeling that this is a good place to be.

These are just some of the reasons why, when someone has a problem finding a place to live here, we all have a housing problem. But, we also have many actions that we can take as a local official, a business owner, a developer, or a concerned citizen. Visit www.keystothevalley.com to find out how you can help.

Kevin Geiger is the senior planner at the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission. The Keys to the Valley project is a joint effort of the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission, Mount Ascutney Regional Commission, and Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission.




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