Affordable housing is becoming something of an oxymoron in Vermont. Many low-income renters, according to a recent report, are finding that even a modest two-bedroom apartment is neither affordable nor in decent supply in many parts of the state.
“The costs are driven by the economy, and we are not necessarily responsive to the affordability level,” said Elisabeth Kulas, executive director of the Housing Trust of Rutland County, a nonprofit corporation that provides affordable housing to residents of the county.
Kulas said housing affordability in Rutland County and across Vermont is a “multifaceted” problem based on a ratio of income versus rent.
She said many low-wage earners lack the necessary skills to work at a higher-paying job, or that their skills don’t match up with the jobs that are available locally.
Often, the only jobs that are available to people with limited or poorly matched skill sets are in the retail or service industries. Without public assistance, local housing is often unaffordable, Kulas said.
The current minimum hourly wage in Vermont is $10.
Even with public-housing subsidy programs like Section 8, Kulas said some renters still can’t afford life’s basic necessities, like food and reliable transportation.
“One of the things we struggle with in Vermont is workforce preparedness — those jobs for which people have been trained may not align with the jobs that need to be filled. There is that gap between what employees are willing to do and what employers need,” Kulas said.
The dilemma is illustrated in the 2017 Out of Reach Report of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a Washington, D.C., research and advocacy group, and the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.
The report found that renters would need to earn $21.90 an hour in 2017 to afford a basic two-bedroom apartment, plus utilities, at the monthly Fair Market Rent of $1,139 in Vermont.
“We’re not talking about luxury apartments with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops,” said VAHC Coordinator Erhard Mahnke.
In many cases, it’s a newly upgraded or renovated standalone apartment or building unit, minus any frills. And in many cases, renters living on fixed incomes are just “one financial crisis away from becoming homeless,” Mahnke said.
To put things into perspective, a person would need to work 88 hours per week, or 2.2 full-time jobs, to afford a two-bedroom rental home in Vermont, based on the current Fair Market Rent, according to the report.
At the $21.90 state housing wage, in order to afford both rent and utilities — without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing — a household must bring in $3,795 monthly, or $45,545 annually. The national housing wage is $21.21. Vermont is ranked as the seventh most expensive state for rural nonmetropolitan areas.
In Rutland County, the fiscal 2017 housing wage is $18.23, while the average monthly cost for a two-bedroom apartment is $948.
The average housing wage for Washington County is $19.87. For a two-bedroom apartment, the rent is $1,033 and a household would need to work at two full-time jobs to earn the $41,320 to pay for rent and other expenses.
In Burlington-South Burlington MSA, the most expensive area in Vermont, which includes Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties, the housing wage is $26.83, and the monthly cost of a two-bedroom rental apartment is $1,395.
“I do agree in that (the average rental cost of a two-bedroom apartment) varies by county,” Kulas said. “The ratio of income to rent is similar, no matter where you are. The lack of affordability is comparable, but the dynamics are very different.”
Kulas said the monthly rent for a modest two-bedroom apartment in Rutland County is around $650 to $750. The Housing Trust of Rutland County portfolio includes four efficiencies, 119 one-bedroom units, 86 two-bedroom units, 38 three-bedroom units, and two four-bedroom units.
In addition, the agency has mobile home lots and service-supported housing, bringing the total number of units to 310. The average two-bedroom rent is $800, which includes utilities, Kulas said.
The Housing Trust operates with both state, federal and private funding sources. The income qualification cap is based on household size. For example, it’s $33,000 for two people, and $41,000 for a family of four, she said.
“We have had to turn people away when they didn’t earn enough money. We didn’t feel comfortable putting them in a situation they couldn’t afford. We have had people (apply) literally with zero income,” Kulas said.
It’s harder for people with a disability living on Supplemental Security Income, who can afford to spend around $236 in monthly rent, according to the report. This leaves them $903 short for a two-bedroom apartment.
So why are monthly rents becoming more out of reach for low-income Vermonters in 2017?
Mahnke said the answer partly is the weakness of the overall economy and partly the nature and composition of Vermont’s largely service-oriented employment sector.
Many renters are locked into low-paying service industry jobs or live in communities that don’t offer much in terms of higher-paying union manufacturing jobs. The vacancy rate for affordable housing also varies based in part on a community’s desirability, he said.
With Vermont boasting one of the nation’s oldest housing stocks, turning vintage property into rental housing often comes with the added cost of lead abatement, water infiltration damage, and necessary large repairs and renovations in order to bring these properties into compliance with local building codes.
These factors all contribute to an average higher cost of housing, Mahnke said.
At Giancola Family of Companies in Rutland, the monthly rent for a privately owned two-bedroom apartment unit runs anywhere from $535 to around $850.
Qualified applicants are required to produce a good rental history, personal and work references, a security deposit, and the first and last month’s rent.
“If you have a lot of homes and no demand, you have to get what you can get,” said company owner Joseph Giancola, who added that there is no waiting list for any of his available rental units in Rutland.
Mahnke said he’s hopeful a $35 million housing bond included in Vermont’s fiscal 2018 budget will be a “major shot in the arm” for new affordable-housing construction. The bond is currently stalled in the Vermont Legislature.
Kulas said the challenge is to promote workforce development in Vermont so that the “vicious cycle” of generational poverty will be broken.
“It’s a challenge for us in Vermont with our limited resources to take the workforce from where it’s at and position it for what’s available,” Kulas said.