McQuiston: Housing Needs

Jul 13, 2016

The American Promise isn’t dead. But it’s not what it used to be.

The Promise was that of home ownership and the vision was an acre in the suburbs. But the dream of home ownership has lost much of its luster. Younger generations aren’t drawn to the country club lifestyle idealized by their parents and grandparents, and, yes, great-grandparents. As Bette Davis would say, there’s no there there, meaning the burbs are boring. Perhaps when they have their own kids there will be more interest in “out there.”

But there’s a more profound reason why the Promise has profoundly changed. The economics of home ownership and a 30-year mortgage just don’t work anymore. Even with very low interest rates and the tax breaks to go with it, it’s hard to justify the cost of owning a single-family home.

My parents’ home in the suburbs increased in value over 10 times in 30 years. My home in the suburbs of a similar economic level will increase 2 to 2 ½ times over 30 years, if I’m lucky. However, I’ll wind up paying in principle and interest about twice what I paid for it. Home values now are even more stagnant and I don’t see that changing. A single family home just isn’t the great investment it used to be and might be an unwise one in the future.

Perhaps you’d buy a house for the schools, or to garden, or to have a bit more space, but it’s no longer a financial windfall.

Despite a slowly-growing population, Vermont needs more housing. Nearly all the new housing in Chittenden County is in multi-family dwellings. And while lower income housing has gotten most of the headlines, the greater need by volume is for middle income housing.

Recently, planners, politicians, builders and housing advocates came together in South Burlington to talk about the need for more housing. The gathering was intended to get all stakeholders on board to see the urgency – though the meeting didn’t produce a legislative mandate or reveal a public funding source to push a plan forward.

The idea was, I suppose, that it’s in everyone’s best interest to see the need and encourage a “can do” spirit, rather than the “can’t do” attitude that often plagues development in Vermont.

The American Promise isn’t dead. But in the future, it’s more likely going to come with a neighbor down the hall, not across the fence.