Home News and Features Features The Climate Crisis is Driving Our Housing and Labor Crises 

The Climate Crisis is Driving Our Housing and Labor Crises 

In Vermont, like many places in the United States, we are witnessing a collapse in our labor economy. Every institution, municipality, and business is in desperate search for workers to maintain their declining services. At the root of this challenge is a local, intractable, housing crisis. A good argument can be made that this crisis is precipitated by the burgeoning influx of climate and COVID-19 refugees over the past few years. 

 For me, this local challenge was clarified by Gaia Vince’s work in her new book “Nomad Century,” reviewed in the Oct. 19 issue of The Bridge by Dan Hemenway. Her exploration of how the climate and associated crises will create a future flood of climate refugees to northern states like Vermont explains much of the dislocations we are seeing around us. I would contend that the future Vince predicts is already here and we are being overrun by wealthy refugees.

 Vermont has already become too attractive for people with money and a vague liberal mindset. A recent edition of the NPR show “On Point” featured Vince’s description of how northern states, with water, are becoming “havens” for well-heeled climate refugees. 

 Coming from those fragile places where droughts, heat, and floods are making life unlivable, those elites, who can see what’s coming, and have the money, are getting out while the getting is good. From Vince, I was surprised to learn that, in each of the last few years, more than 14,000 acres of Vermont’s woodlands are being developed for luxury homesteads. But it isn’t just the new McMansions. For a few years now, these upper-class folks have been buying up much of our state’s existing housing stock. 

 The current Vermont administration values market forces instead of governmental action. Sadly, our leaders are clueless as to the long-term costs of this situation. And, those costs, for all of us but the wealthy, are high and getting higher.

Rents on formerly affordable apartments have skyrocketed. Vermontbiz.com reported in August of this year, “In Vermont, the average renter earns $16.47 per hour, which is nearly $7 less per hour than the wage needed for a modest two-bedroom apartment.” Housing prices in Vermont increased by nearly 9% in 2021 and will “surge” by more than 10% in 2022, according to the latest financial report from the state’s Department of Finance and Management. 

 Yet, our rich refugees are looking for more. Realtor friends complain about a lack of local inventory to meet the ever growing demand from out-of-state clients. When asked about the recent drop in real estate prices, reported in the news, they laugh. Higher interest rates are not a problem. These buyers are simply paying cash and don’t even see their purchased houses until closing.

 The middle class is being pushed down into cheaper apartments, thereby pushing the working class out all together. Schools cannot hire sufficient teachers, staff, or substitutes necessary for normal operations. Recently, several local schools had to close because they didn’t have enough teachers and subs. 

 For the teachers, the story goes something like this. Yes, the continued infections of COVID increase the system’s fragility, but the underlying crisis arises in housing and childcare. Last summer, Barre wanted to hire close to 30 teachers. The prospective recruits wanted the jobs, but they had to turn down the offers because they couldn’t find affordable local housing. There seems to be a similar problem in most of the central Vermont school districts. This means that even decently paid middle class folks can’t find reasonable housing options here.

 By allowing our real estate to be bought up and controlled by the wealthy, the rest of us become poorer. Friends in state government have reported to me that our state agencies are searching for workers needed to make up a current 20% shortfall in state workers. Other workers, who provided critical municipal, health, retail, and education services, are simply priced out of the market.

 Without a sufficient workforce, even those rich “refugees” won’t have the services they will need. Who is going to build things, look after and educate their kids, all while keeping everyday things running and repaired?

 This terrible housing and labor situation is made worse by a rearward looking state tax and development process that makes us incapable of meeting our growing needs. Most state and local government agencies, mandated with supporting the creation of housing, have recently been allocated tens of millions of federal dollars, but as far as I can tell, they are dithering. Why? Because of administrative incompetence and a public/private development model based on a market system that subsidizes developer’s profits.

 In the current environment, due to high interest rates and the skyrocketing costs of materials and labor, private developers are leery of taking on the financial commitments to meet their part of those assumed public/private bargains. Coupled with our veto-paralyzed legislature, these conditions make positive responses ever more difficult. 

 As “Nomad Century’’ predicts, Vermont is no longer losing population. It has become a desirable place for rich people. Instead of worrying about driving away their investments with new second house taxes, we need to recognize how this colonization by the rich is destroying our collective future.

Dan Jones is a sustainability advocate who organized the Sustainable Montpelier Design Competition and co-founded the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition.