Affordable housing explored

MANCHESTER - Manchester is touted as a town with so much to offer - recreation, schools, culture and the town wants to invite folks not just to visit, but also to stay. However, there's one amenity that sometimes has an issue get: where are they going to live? For many, there seems to be a lack of affordable housing the town has to offer. When asking a real estate agent about the topic, he laughed and said, "Oh, what we don't have."

While there's land a-plenty, there aren't always places for people to live.

Habitat for Humanity of Bennington County is one organization trying to make this housing issue a thing of the past. Dick Malley, executive director of the organization, said in terms of cost, Habitat can build good quality homes and offer them to their home buyers at a lower cost for two reasons.

"There's no charge for volunteer labor [there's around] 3,000 hours of volunteer labor in a house," he said. "Second, when we sell a house we don't charge any interest."

Habitat can open the door to home ownership to many individuals that may have issue purchasing a home otherwise, but Malley is the first to admit habitat cannot help everyone. They have very specific qualifications that allows them to serve only a small portion of the community. There needs to be income, but there can't be too much and any potential homeowner needs to have a favorable debt to income ratio he said. There's also a residency component- any future home buyer has to have lived or work in Bennington County for one year and show that you need better housing.

While there are needs for housing, Malley said it does not necessarily correlate to more habitat builds.

"There's a big need [for habitat and more affordable housing in general] if you look at housing," he said. "But we're not flooded with applications - requirements are very strict."

Habitat is not the only organization working on trying to offer more affordable housing. John Broderick, executive director of Shires Housing, works to offer individuals making just fewer than 60 percent of the median income housing. He said the individuals who live in his apartments work in places like the outlets or the grocery store and don't make enough money to afford another rental in town. Scanning the classifieds in the local papers shows that many rentals hover around the $750 mark. Some are less and some are more, but there are still utilities to consider, such as heat, in this total. Shires Housing, on the other hand, has apartments for rent under the market, hovering around $600, but they do have some larger units that go for closer to $800. Broderick's apartments are a tax credit program, but do accept section eight housing vouchers. The apartments were built 14 years ago and instead of focusing on projects based rental assistance, they instead focused on the ability of their renters to pay their rent without going over about 35 percent of their income.

"So we hit this narrow band of people, on the high end it's $35, or $36,000 and on the low end it's about 25,000," he said. "Do we have some people you pay with section eight vouchers Yes. Most people here in our 36 apartments, they work in the outlet stores, they work in the grocery the inns, in the ski resorts."

Section eight housing, according to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, assist low income families in paying for housing on the private market.

Broderick said that they lost people in their complexes because of the economic downturn, because when some of the outlets closed or downsized their renters no longer had jobs. Many he said, came to Manchester for jobs and ended up leaving because they had no other ties here. However, now there are the lowest amount of vacancies in the development since 2011.

While there is Habitat and Shires Housing, what happens if you don't fit the qualifications for these organizations? Broderick said because of high rent or cost of homeowner ship in this area that many younger people could have trouble finding a place to live. East Branch Farms was build by a private developer and can cover some of that need.

"My organization agreed to facilitate subsidies in to help people get in who are the median income or in some cases 80 percent of the median," he said.

"Thirty percent is real poverty, 60 percent is workforce housing without rental subsidies and then when you get up to around 80 that's when you start to touch on home ownership level, people could afford a mortgage with some help."

The housing market and the price of homes in the area is criticized sometimes when discussing affordability. Part of the rhetoric seems to focus on people from out of town buying second homes in the area. According to housing market data provided by Vermont Country Properties, the majority of homes sold in the Manchester - Dorset zip code are to Vermont buyers. In 2013, 103 homes for sold, with 48 costing less than $259,999 and 19 less than $99,000. For the first quarter of 2014, 12 homes $259,999 or less have sold, with 20 currently listed.

Affordable housing is not just a topic of discussion in Manchester; it's something being talked about all over the country.

"It's harder for people generally to buy their first home now, in some cases it's related to student loan debt or in a lot of cases it's just simply the make up of the credit markets," Broderick said. "Banks are not willing to take the kinds of risks that they used to, banks used to be rewarded for creativity and now they're penalized for that."

Broderick said that in the aftermath of the financial crisis the mortgage market is much more regulated and it's harder to get loans for some people. While Vermont had very little predatory lending, markets like Manchester and other places around the state are still feeling the repercussions from the subprime mortgage meltdown. However, Broderick said he's optimistic for the affordable housing market in the area.

"My organization is watching the market here very, very closely and we look forward to continuing to meet the needs of the Manchester community," he said. "If that means building more rentals, we'll be happy to look into that, if that means building more affordable condos, we'll be happy to look into that as well."


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