• Montpelier planners revisit affordable housing
    By Eric Blaisdell
     | January 16,2014

    MONTPELIER — At their most recent meeting this week, the Montpelier Planning Commission took up a familiar issue: affordable housing.

    Polly Nichols, a member of the city’s housing task force and housing director for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, presented her thoughts on the current state of affordable housing in Montpelier and some suggestions on how to increase the number of affordable dwellings.

    Nichols said the definition of affordable housing is a residence that costs a household 30 percent or less of its income. For renters, housing costs include rent and utilities, while for homeowners the costs include mortgage, taxes and insurance.

    According to the latest census data, Nichols said, the median household income in the city was just under $58,000. According to Nichols, the median income for homeowners was $69,000, while for renters it was $38,000.

    Nichols said a household with median income in Montpelier can afford a $195,000 house, if it put 5 percent down toward the purchase. The median sale price of a Montpelier home, meanwhile, was $217,450 in the first half of last year, according to Nichols.

    Without citing specifics, she said the median price of a house in Montpelier is higher than in the rest of the county, and she asserted that home prices are rising in Montpelier while falling elsewhere in Washington County.

    Nichols also said that more than a third of homeowners and renters in the city pay more than 30 percent of their income, and that many even pay more than s50 percent of their income toward housing.

    It’s not all bad news, however, according to Nichols. She said if you include transportation costs, on average Montpelier residents pay 44 percent of their income on housing and transportation combined, with 40 percent of residents working outside the city.

    “Not surprisingly, the combined cost of housing and transportation in Montpelier is less than in a lot of the surrounding towns because we have a lot of jobs,” she said. “So, our housing is more expensive, but when you combine (housing and transportation), we’re actually doing a little better than some of the surrounding towns.”

    In terms of the age of residents, Nichols said more than half of Montpelier’s homeowners and fewer than 15 percent of renters are older than 55.

    “I think it tells us that Montpelier is not very affordable, either for renters or homeowners, and that the situation is getting worse,” Nichols said.

    She said the homeowner population is older and renters tend to be young, but when they move into homeownership they are often doing so elsewhere. She added that the percentage of people living in Montpelier who are between 30 and 39 years old — a prime age for buying a home, she said — decreased by more than 15 percent between 2000 and 2010.

    “We’re losing our younger population, perhaps in part because they can’t afford to buy homes here,” she said.

    Nichols offered some suggestions on how to address the problem. She said one of the keys is housing density, or how many housing units can be built in a single development. She suggested housing density in Montpelier could be changed so a developer could put more units on a property than currently allowed, presumably making the work of going through the permit process more agreeable.

    On the other hand, Nichols suggested the city could leave the current density restrictions in place and simply allow projects that meet the city’s criteria to move forward as proposed by the developers. She said there have been many instances where a development was scaled back in part because of neighborhood opposition.

    Nichols also suggested offering financial incentives to first-time homebuyers to keep them in the city, such as down payment assistance. She said the city created a housing trust fund around six years ago and that fund could be used for such a program.

    Nichols also suggested a housing replacement ordinance, such as the one that Burlington has. Under such an ordinance, if a developer tears down existing housing or converts it to another use, the city would require that those units be replaced by the developer.

    Commission Chairman Kim Cheney said the problem is that no one is spending the money to build anything in Montpelier, whether it’s subsidized or not. He said it seemed to him that market forces are hindering development in the city rather than anything the city itself is doing. Cheney said that if rents and housing values are high, it seemed counterintuitive to him that Montpelier wouldn’t be a good place to build.

    He asked Nichols if there was anything about the city that is deterring developers.

    Nichols replied that a task force conducted a focus group with developers a few years ago. She acknowledged that some of the issues with development in Montpelier were market forces but said there was a perception in the home construction industry that it was difficult to get permits through the city. And she again touched on neighborhood opposition to development.

    “(Builders) felt like they could build in an outlying community and get a permit more quickly and maybe not have the kind of opposition that folks have encountered here,” she said.

    Commission member Jon Anderson said he once supported a housing replacement ordinance like the one in Burlington, because he was worried that there would be too much commercial space replacing housing in Montpelier. Now, he said, it’s not as much of an issue because he’s hearing there is interest in developing housing downtown, particularly single-bedroom apartments in an attempt to attract single people.

    Anderson suggested the city consider offering density “bonuses,” wherein a developer would be able to build more units on a piece of land than normal zoning allows — provided the developer builds some of the units strictly for affordable housing.

    He also suggested a type of density bonus where a developer who wants to build a big housing complex could set aside a piece of land for affordable housing but not be required to actually build the affordable housing, instead allowing for someone else to construct it later.

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