Windham County Economic Report: You need housing, and housing needs infrastructure

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Windham County Economic Report: You need housing, and housing needs infrastructure

Sat, 05/21/2022 - 5:14pm -- tim

Photo: Hotel Brooks in Brattleboro. Courtesy photo.

by Clare Morgana Gillis, Vermont Business Magazine Windham County residents often speak of their appetite for more robust economic development and the desire to create a place where young people don’t need to leave to get a good job or be able to afford to buy a home. But the problem with that appetite is that even if it’s fed, there’s no place for the byproduct to run off; lack of investment in infrastructure, in particular wastewater treatment, hampers the construction of new housing.

Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, said that while the housing problem has become much more acute due to pandemic buyup of housing stock, he’s heartened that the issue is widely recognized now.

“There’s been an awakening on the issue of housing,” he said.

Photo: Chris Campany, Executive Director at Windham Regional Commission. Courtesy photo.

The WRC serves a vital role as connective tissue in the towns and villages of southeastern Vermont. Because all planning and zoning in Vermont are done at either the state or municipal level — counties don’t exist as administrative units — zoning
restrictions can differ wildly from one settlement to the next, making it difficult to realize a regional vision. And without the political will for local investment to support wastewater treatment, brownfield cleanup, as well as road maintenance and other necessities of life that link towns together, it’s a tough sell for developers to want to create more places to live.

“There’s an utter absence of infrastructure to support new housing,” Campany said.

The WRC acts to connect towns with grant opportunities to build, maintain and repair this infrastructure. Many of the grants are created to serve narrow, specific purposes, and the WRC can use its planning expertise to help towns, many of which do not have the administrative staff to carry out significant projects, find the best solutions to issues they face.

Photo: Hotel Brooks in Brattleboro. Courtesy photo

The ideal model for new housing developments is a compact residential center that allows for efficient infrastructure and public transportation while preserving wide swathes of natural habitat, both for recreation and greater climate resiliency, now and in the future.

The WRC is considering developing such a project at the Winston Prouty school grounds in Brattleboro, similar to existing developments such as Red Clover Commons, also in Brattleboro, and Algiers Village in Guilford.

Campany also noted the lack of a regional organization for outdoor activities. Customarily, any private property in Vermont that is not posted with “No Trespassing” signs may be traversed, but while “privileged white folk, and especially males, feel OK about that, people of different identities have been harassed on public lands, so not everybody feels equally comfortable doing it,” he said.

The lack of signage and maps to help visitors navigate the outdoors safely here can pose a problem. Campany compared it to Colorado, where public land, private land, parking areas and accessible pathways are clearly labeled.

Daniel Yates, president and CEO of Brattleboro Savings & Loan, reports that the bank grew by just under 10% since last year and now holds $303 million in assets. Mortgage business grew significantly for the second year in a row, topping $42 million in 2021. Yates attributed the recent slowing rate of mortgage applications to dwindling housing stock rather than to cooling interest in home-buying, but he noted that $7 million of new mortgage applications now in process at the bank are for empty lots people plan to build on rather than for extant homes. Compared to a year ago, when the interest rate was hovering around 3%, today’s rate of 5.25% for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage will result in about 65% more in interest payments over the life of the loan. The home market continues to see an influx of Covid escapees.

Inflation of real estate prices concerns Yates when he has his “hand-wringing hat on,” and the bank has declined to finance purchases on occasion. A condo at Mount Snow, for example, sold for $1.75 million this year, 11 months after it was purchased for $940,000. Resort property values crashed hard in the 1980s and 1990s, he said, and he does not want the bank to underwrite loans that may prove to be part of a bubble that eventually bursts. “It’s unrealistic, and we’ve seen it before,” he said.

But generally speaking, Yates said, “I don’t see a lot of indicators of economic doom.” Downtown Brattleboro, he observed, is “vibrant, with constant traffic, lots of out-of-state people, people in restaurants and on sidewalks. It feels very alive.”

He had imagined the massive growth experienced in 2020-21 would eventually decline, and while the rate of growth has slowed, it does continue.

Brattleboro S&L has promoted online banking for years, but it only took off when the pandemic forced the banks’ lobbies to close. Once customers grew accustomed to the idea, they embraced it; lobby traffic is now about half of what it was pre-pandemic. The bank has been able to keep its commitment to no layoffs due to pandemic downsizing, and in fact recently increased the starting salary of a teller.

Earlier fears that the 2020 census would reveal a reduced population in Windham County not only have not come to pass, but bear witness to a sizable increase. Adam Grinold, executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, sees in that fact a long and carefully crafted effort coming to fruition.

In 2014, the BDCC and other regional stakeholders observed that the population was shrinking and set the goal to raise it by creating a comprehensive economic-development strategy. This meant encouraging in-migration from elsewhere in the country as well as immigration from abroad and retaining more of Vermont’s youth in the state. The latter goal gave rise to “P3,” the Pipelines and Pathways Program to employment. All four high schools in Windham County take part in this program, which aims to connect high school students with local employers, so students know more about local opportunities available to them, whether or not they choose to go to college.

“We need to shift the understanding in the entire state that entering a trade is not second-best to attending college, Grinold said. “There are many high-wage, high-growth jobs locally, especially small manufacturers that require a broad array of job skills.” P3 is collaborating with the Vermont Department of Labor to create new apprenticeships as well.

Population in Windham County continued to rise after the 2020 census results were tabulated, due to some who were fleeing Covid, and others, the Taliban. More than 90 Afghan refugees arrived in Brattleboro in the first months of 2022, with 30 more expected later this year. Before the US withdrew from Afghanistan last summer, the State Department had already approved 70 refugees for resettlement in Brattleboro, and those are expected to arrive later this year as well. In the future, Brattleboro will continue to welcome about 70 refugees annually.

While it is too early to tell how permanent the Covid-induced relocations to Vermont will be, Grinold said it’s clear that the challenges of living in Vermont did not drive people away. The pandemic itself pushed people out of cities, and the subsequent American Rescue Plan funding holds the promise of fostering innovations to expand broadband access, making remote work even more accessible.

Grinold tracks an important sea change in Vermont’s self-conception because of Covid. For a long time, he said, the state had the reputation of attracting visitors for “getaway weekends — come up, look at things, drive away.” Now that many have had the experience of staying awhile, they are able to perceive the true essence of Vermont’s “quality of life, small communities, ability to participate in local government.”

He added, “I’m really excited about the prospects of continuing to attract new Vermonters. We buy our own media far too often. We’re down on ourselves in Vermont, whether it’s due to a Yankee mentality or what. … We have so many amazing things, that we have to flip that old narrative. We need to keep telling future Vermonters that and support their relocation here.”

Photo: The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center and M&S Development plan for a $30 million community and economic development project that will harness charitable gifts, private investment, and public funds to expand the museum's cultural and educational offerings, draw more visitors to southern Vermont, and fill a need for new housing in downtown Brattleboro. Courtesy photo.

 

Afghan Refugees in Brattleboro

In the wake of the precipitous US withdrawal from Afghanistan this past summer, some 120,000 Afghans fled to the United States. Among the many municipalities newly approved as resettlement destinations was Brattleboro. Working in partnership with the US Committee for Refugees and Immigration in Colchester, the Ethiopian Community Development Council opened a branch office in Brattleboro to oversee the resettlement process. Fleeing a war-ravaged country — and in many cases, evading a Taliban death list — can ultimately prove to be the most straightforward of the challenges that face New Americans. But the Brattleboro community has responded with overwhelming positivity to facilitate resettlement and integration into local life.

Jennifer Stromsten, director of programs at BDCC, has been concentrating on workforce recruitment and retention for many years in partnership with high schools and employers. Welcoming Communities is an umbrella of programs supporting the many people who are interested in moving to Vermont. While growing diversity is already quite visible in the high schools, Stromsten said, “we have obvious impediments to welcoming and nurturing that diversity, and people are working to overcome that. But we all know that the workforce of 20 years from now looks a lot more like America looks as a whole. Our communities aren’t quite fully ready, our employers aren’t quite fully ready, and so that’s a process. Part of Welcoming Communities is trying to help everyone accelerate through that process.”

Much of the engine for economic growth in this country is powered by people immigrating from abroad, and while the younger generations are more diverse, the current managerial class is still largely white in this region. This is an especially striking dynamic in Vermont, where much of the agricultural and resort labor that characterizes the state economy is performed by visa workers. “We have to take on issues related to diversity,” said Stromsten, and so it was a natural fit for Welcoming Communities (and its subdivision, Welcoming Workplaces) to become involved in refugee resettlement.

Resettlement of Afghan refugees in the area is “pretty exciting,” said Susan Westa, senior planner and director of community development with the WRC. She contrasts the visible cultural diversity the new residents bring to the casual tendency of Vermont news articles to designate people from outside Vermont as “flatlanders.”

“People laugh, but I think it’s emblematic of something else,” she said.

Amir Mohammed Samar departed Afghanistan on Aug 19, 2021, and was among the nearly 100 refugees who arrived in Brattleboro early this year. He now works with the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation as the job placement manager for the refugees. His role is, in a sense, a continuation of his work in Afghanistan, where he served as a project manager at nonprofits, often working closely alongside US government agencies and addressing a wide range of issues and interacting with people from many countries.

“We are so delighted with the employers here,” he said, pointing specifically to Vermont Plank Flooring, Cerosimo Lumber and Against the Grain Bakery, all of whom immediately stepped forward to actively seek out refugees for their workforces.

Photo: Amir Samar, Afghan refugee. Photo by Clare Morgana Gillis.

Currently, 47 of those who are able and willing to work are employed, while most of the others comprise children and homemakers.

This cohort of refugees includes civil engineers, an expert in robotics, a midwife, a journalist, and several others with medical or pharmaceutical training. English language competency is one of the main barriers to employment that fully makes use of their existing expertise. The three companies that actively recruited among the refugee population provide English language classes to their employees, either after the workday is completed or on weekends. BDCC is working with the Vermont Department of Labor to find ways to “translate” the professional degrees and qualifications highly educated Afghans arrived with into US-recognized certifications.

On their initial arrival in Brattleboro, the Afghans were housed at the School for International Training, where they got to know each other and participated in courses on cultural education, the many ways that Afghan and US society differ from each other. Cultural education goes in both directions; employers have been learning about Ramadan, a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset that prohibits even drinking water, as well as allowing for prayer breaks in the daily schedule and providing a space to pray in at the workplace.

The newly resettled Afghans bring with them a deep motivation to work, Samar said. It can seem as though every other business has a “Help Wanted” sign hanging in the window, and the employers who didn’t hesitate to welcome refugee employees and are investing the time to train them and help foster their knowledge of English are reaping those benefits.

BDCC’s Grinold affirms that “some of the work I’m most proud of is the Welcoming Workplaces effort, preparing the employers. They don’t have the experience of doing this. Vermont is such a white state — it’s a big change for our region to welcome Afghans into the community. I love seeing that diversity, seeing Afghan women with their children on my morning commute. Many of our new Vermonters will be either refugees from foreign countries or people of a more diverse background in this country.”

While it’s easy enough to find work in the region, housing and transportation pose much more of a challenge — for New Americans as much as for those already here. Refugee resettlement in Brattleboro relies on a community sponsorship model, where volunteers form groups to provide support to a particular family or individual. Nearly every type of errand in Vermont requires transportation; fortunately, volunteers far outnumber the refugees themselves.

Yates of BS&L says that some Afghans have opened accounts at the bank, and one has accepted an offer to work there. Yates aims to bring the goal of home ownership within reach for Afghans in a culturally appropriate manner. The bank is working with Kate Laud of Chittenden County’s Opportunities Credit Union to develop a home purchase mortgage program in compliance with Islamic law, which prohibits the charging of interest.

“We have a responsibility to integrate people into the community,” he said.

Clare Morgana Gillis is a historian and journalist in Brattleboro.