Business & Economy

The Deeper Dig: The housing crunch hits Vermont renters

Jodie Vasquez and her family have to leave their home of four years in Westfield but have not been able to find a new place to live. Vasquez packs up some of her belongings on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Deeper Dig is a weekly podcast from the VTDigger newsroom. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Vermont’s pandemic housing crunch has been well documented. Reports from Realtors, along with analyses of tax data, have shown that a surge in home-buying has driven up prices and competition.

Less data is available on the state’s rental market. But according to families looking for places to live, the shortage of rental properties is just as acute.

“There’s literally nothing to rent,” Jodie Vasquez told VTDigger earlier this month. 

Vasquez has been searching for more than a year for a Northeast Kingdom rental for her family of five, with no luck. Listings will disappear within hours, she said, and even cold calls to town clerks and property owners go nowhere. Vasquez still doesn’t know where her family will go when they’re forced to leave the Airbnb where they’re currently staying.

On this week’s podcast, Vasquez describes the struggles of navigating the squeezed rental market. Plus, VTDigger’s Justin Trombly discusses what housing officials and advocates say it would take to stabilize the sector. Below is a partial transcript, edited for length and clarity.

Justin, tell me about Jodie Vasquez.

Justin Trombly: Basically, Jodie, her husband and two kids moved to the Northeast Kingdom a few years ago, around 2017. In Colorado, they were looking to find better employment. And they did find it here. Things were going well for them — they were renting; they were saving up to buy their own home. 

Jodie Vasquez: It was definitely beginning to be promising. Right before Covid hit, we actually had an appointment to see a mortgage broker at the credit union to start the process of, you know, the steps to beginning to buy our own home. So yeah, it was definitely becoming promising. And everything that we set out to accomplish, it seemed that it was going to be accomplished.

Justin Trombly: Before the pandemic, Jodie had been working as a truck driver. She originally had driven a truck for her in-laws, and eventually, she had bought that truck from them. So she was an independent driver, working the roads, delivering things. When the pandemic hit and a lot of things shut down, she lost out on that job and that stable stream of income. 

Jodie Vasquez: It shut down construction, and that’s my main income source. You know, when you go from making close to $4,000 a week to nothing — the income stops, but the bills don’t. You’ve got your overhead for your truck. You’ve got the insurance, fuel costs, repair costs, licensing costs. They never stopped, and I couldn’t keep ahead. 

Justin Trombly: This obviously brought a lot of pressure on her. So she decided to enroll in the Community College of Vermont to get a degree in medical coding and billing. She figured that medical jobs, they’re always going to be there. And she thought that might be something that’s a little more stable, especially during a time like this. 

Jodie Vasquez: We were content, we were home — you know, what we considered home — and everything was going great.

Justin Trombly: So Jodie and her family were going ahead with this plan. And by this time in the early pandemic, Jodie is actually a few months pregnant with the couple’s third child. They’re living this whole time in a Westfield home, which is in Orleans County. And come last May, her landlord says, ‘Hey, I sold my house, and I’d like to move into the house that I’m renting to you guys.’ Basically saying, ‘Get out of here.’

That was a move by the landlord to sort of cash in on this housing market boom we’re seeing in Vermont, where the prices for new homes are skyrocketing, and there’s a huge demand, especially for out-of-staters to come in and take up housing here.

Jodie Vasquez: It’s almost like a slap in the face. It’s like, “You’ve got to be kidding me. What are we going to do?” 

And I was nine months pregnant at the time. So I wasn’t thinking about, “Where are we going to go?” I’ve got to give birth first, and I’ve got to get through these few months first before I can even think about moving somewhere. And what are we going to do? There’s nothing for rent, nobody’s leaving their homes right now, nobody’s leaving their rental properties right now. So it was a shock.

Justin Trombly: Because of eviction moratoriums, the Vasquezes didn’t have to leave immediately. But it’s been more than a year and a lot of effort, and they haven’t been able to find another rental in Vermont, at least one that will work with their needs. They’re a family of five. They have dogs. And according to Jodie, there really hasn’t been anything. 

Jodie Vasquez: There’s literally nothing to rent. I mean, at one point, things were going so fast, a gentleman had posted his home for rent, a four-bedroom home for $3,400 a month, and it was gone within 14 hours. Another lady I talked to, she had her three-bedroom house on the market, and it was in probate court. So she wasn’t sure what was going to happen with it anyway. But she got 150 calls on it. So it turned into panic mode, at that point.

Justin Trombly: They’ve been checking out listings that will disappear within hours. They’re talking with real estate agents who are turning up empty handed. They’re even talking with town clerks and people like that, who are just trying to find anything that might be available. She told me about how they’ve even gone as far as to drive around, and every time they spotted an empty home, they’ll take down the address, go to a town clerk or town records, see who owned it, and try to get in touch with them and see, ‘Hey, you’ve got this empty home here, would you be willing to rent it?’

Wow. These are homes that aren’t even on the rental market? They’re just cold calling?

Justin Trombly: These are just empty homes that they’ve driven by in the area.

Jodie Vasquez: It’s not that we can’t — we pay our bills. It’s not that we can’t afford anything. There’s just nothing to pay for, you know? There’s nothing out there. 

Why is it so hard for Jodie and her family to find a place?

Justin Trombly: Everyone knows right now that the homes market in Vermont is under a lot of strain. What’s less clear, but is still probably present, is the idea that … there are a lot more people looking for apartments now than there are apartments. Partially, it’s a matter of just this huge scarcity right now. And this is somewhat speculative, but there’s a few factors that people think are going into this. 

What are those factors?

Justin Trombly: First off, Vermont in general, in recent years, has had a lower-than-ideal vacancy rate. And basically, that phrase refers to the number of people looking for rentals versus the number of rentals. People in the housing industry think that a rate between 4 and 6% is ideal for both renters and landlords. And in recent years, Vermont has had somewhere in the 3% range. 

OK, so a little low. 

Justin Trombly: Yeah, a little. Of course, it’s much more exacerbated in places like Chittenden County, where it’s usually hovering in the 1% bound. But part of the reason for that, as state officials described to me, is Vermont as a whole sort of lags behind in new housing starts — building new houses. Now those houses might be used for rentals, right? Or they might be used as permanent housing. And when they’re used as permanent housing, then you have people who are renting currently who might want to move into that space. So either way, those new houses free up some space in the market. But Vermont has lagged behind in that, and the housing construction data that’s available shows that in recent years, it has dropped tremendously. So that’s one factor. 

It seems like the pandemic has certainly exacerbated the rental vacancy rate here in Vermont, just because there’s such a demand for housing right now. You have people who are moving in from out of state; they’re buying up properties. If they’re renting them, the wisdom seems to be that they’re renting them at higher prices than normal. The whole market is just sort of under strain right now.

It sounds like you really can’t disentangle what’s happening with the market for buying homes with the rental market — that when one gets strained, the other is going to fall close behind. 

Justin Trombly: I think it’s safe to say that. Part of the problem with evaluating Vermont’s rental market is the state has such little data available for that. Unlike other states, Vermont doesn’t require landlords to register their properties with the state or anything like that. It’s almost like a wild west. 

One state housing official was describing to me how in Vermont, everything — as far as tracking, monitoring and hearing about rentals — is done through Craigslist. It’s done through Front Porch Forum, word of mouth. There’s no central location, at the state level, to look at rentals and to track whether they’re being filled or are disappearing. So because of that, it’s been difficult for officials and Realtors to really evaluate the true impact of the pandemic. But the expectation is that we’ll be able to see that in the future when enough information is collected and available.

There was this bill in the Legislature that passed during the special session in June, but Gov. Phil Scott vetoed it. And that bill would have created a statewide rental registry. Is the sense among people you’ve talked to that that would have helped the situation here?

Justin Trombly: With a registry like that, you would imagine it’d be easier for officials, or maybe even all Vermonters, to keep track of the rental market and what’s available and what’s not. The state has so little data on this, and has so little data historically on it, that any increase in the information collected about the number of rentals and their availability, I think, would give a broader insight into, especially, the pandemic-induced stress. 

Everything right now is sort of just conventional wisdom and what people are seeing on the ground. You have Realtors and landlords who are saying, “Yeah, we’ve noticed an increase in applications.” Landlords are overwhelmed with the numbers of people trying to get into their apartments. And you’re seeing, in places like Burlington, studies being done — by rental or by real estate firms — that do confirm that the vacancy rate has dropped in the city. 

Of course, that only speaks to one part of Vermont. And it speaks to a part of Vermont that for a long time has been plagued by the same issue. But if that type of data was available statewide, I think you’d see a lot better insight into what’s going on.

It seems like gathering data would be a good first step. But among those you’ve talked to, is there a sense of what can actually be done beyond that to try to stabilize this market?

Justin Trombly: There have been efforts since the pandemic began, at the state level and at the local level, to sort of address the housing crisis in Vermont generally. One of the things that pandemic has shown us is that people are in dire need of this type of housing. Recently, at the local level, there was an editorial written by social services workers and other stakeholders in the Kingdom, both in and outside of the real estate industry, basically saying that we need more attention on this area, in particular Orleans County and part of Essex County. Their letter claims that the vacancy rate in Orleans County, where Jodie lives, and Northern Essex County hovers around 1 or 2%. That’s almost the same range as Burlington and Chittenden County, which is striking. 

They’ve come out in that letter with a few different recommendations for the state and for local leaders that they think would help address this, at least in the short term. They want housing voucher amounts increased. They would like grants for housing to, quote-unquote, “reflect the true cost of rental housing.” So in effect, they don’t think that grants for this kind of thing are enough right now. 

They also want an increase in the number of Section 8 vouchers that can be used for private rentals. And they’re calling for a fairly expansive building effort. And that’s something you’ve seen at the state level as well. From Island Pond to Troy, sort of along that stretch of road and that work commute zone, they want housing for at least 70 people, which also will include some families. And they also want 30 new units of case managed housing in and around Newport. 

Those are the big-ticket items from a longer list of solutions that they suggest. But their basic ethos is: We kept our neighbors safe during the height of the pandemic. And now as we’re moving out of it, we need to do the same. 

That’s really what Jodie is hoping to see. There’s been a lot of talk, especially up in the Kingdom, about these local support networks and circles of people who are able to help are able to help each other out. You saw across this region, and I’m sure in other places in Vermont, a massive on-the-ground effort to get people food or get people transportation, make sure people are taken care of during this pretty straining time.

Jodie Vasquez: I can tell you that it’s beyond stressful. It’s caused a lot of havoc, internally. My husband and I, it just makes you feel like you’ve failed as a parent. I feel like I’ve failed my kids.

Justin Trombly: Luckily, the family was able to find some housing until November. They got in touch with a landlord who owns an Airbnb in the Jay Peak area, and he was willing to rent to them at a discount because rentals there aren’t exactly cheap, up until November, when the tourist season’s really going to kick in. She’s really grateful for that. Over the past few weeks, they’ve just been packing to move in there. And just now a few days ago, they got settled in. 

But she’s still worried. She’s still wondering, you know, when this ends, when November comes — where are we going to go? I guess that’s the question for her and for other Vermonters.

Jodie Vasquez: [The pandemic] turned my whole life upside down. It really did. It stopped everything and turned everything upside down. And it — I feel like I’m lost. Like I feel like I almost lost my way, like I can’t believe that all of this is happening. It’s kind of hard to kind of wrap your mind around. I’ve tried not to think about it, but it’s just crazy.

We’ve got the federal eviction moratorium ending at the end of this month. Presumably that’s going to take a pretty tight rental market and make it even tighter — there’s going to be more people who are out there looking for a place to go. From the people you’ve talked to, what does it seem like the long-term outlook is here?

Justin Trombly: A lot of it is just so uncertain. Nobody really knows, is the thing. And that’s the case with so many things right now, in state government and local government, and people’s daily lives, is no one really knows what the next six months are going to look like. I mean, we’re still in the pandemic. We’re coming out of it. But I don’t think we’ve truly registered what the impact has been and will be going forward. And even by that point, we might not know.

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Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is VTDigger’s digital editor. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Mike spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: [email protected]

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