Chittenden County is the economic hub of Vermont. It offers a wide array of jobs, a high concentration of young and educated people, and access to thriving locally-owned businesses. What it doesn’t offer is enough housing. The supply of available homes is low, and prices are out of whack with local salaries. This is what planners call a “jobs-housing imbalance” and ours has been worsening since the early 2000s.
In the last 19 years, the number of jobs has remained relatively steady, while the number of workers living here has declined. By 2017 only 68% of those who worked in Chittenden County also called it home. That’s a decrease from 75% in 2002. Moreover, forecasts completed for the Chittenden County ECOS Plan show that the rate of this “in-commuting” will continue to increase. Not only are long commutes time-consuming and expensive for workers, they exacerbate traffic congestion and add even more carbon to the atmosphere.
This is how land use is inextricably linked with transportation. Adding commercial uses (jobs) without a corresponding increase in residential uses (housing) alters travel patterns and strains the transportation system. And transportation investments affect land use. Cities that build parking and expand highways are supporting more auto-oriented land use patterns (sprawl). Those that build sidewalks and bike lanes, and invest in public transit are enabling compact and energy-efficient land use patterns (smart growth).
Post-World War II land use planning introduced an artificial separation between home and work, which has led to longer travel times, traffic congestion and air pollution. It was an approach that ignored the transportation impacts of that separation. The solution relies on considering both land use and transportation--building mixed-use development within an interconnected street network. Adding density along with transit.
So an appropriate response to Chittenden County’s jobs-housing imbalance is to not only create more homes but to locate them in the downtowns and village centers where walking, biking and taking the bus is possible.
Building Homes Together, a partnership between Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, Champlain Housing Trust and Housing Vermont, is aimed at increasing the production of housing in Chittenden County. It has set a target of 3,500 new homes over the next five years, with 20% of them permanently affordable. The first three years of the campaign brought an average of 758 newly constructed homes per year, exceeding its stated annual goal. This far exceeded pre-campaign years when about 450 homes were typically built each year in Chittenden County.
Unfortunately, while the number of housing units has increased, the affordability of those homes has fallen short of the 20% goal. The campaign also measures outcomes to determine if the construction goals are creating a more affordable region. After three years the County still has an anemic rental vacancy rate, indicating that there is still an overall shortage of homes. According to housing experts a 3 to 5% vacancy rate is optimal for a healthy market for renters--where enough supply on the market creates competition and keep prices from increasing. Unfortunately, the long-term market vacancy rate in Chittenden County is 1.8%.
Chittenden County’s ECOS Plan calls for 80% of homes to be built in growth areas. These are places where infrastructure exists for the most part (water, sewer, sidewalks, bike lanes, etc.) and transit is available (at least in the core). The region has successfully met this target since 2013. After a transportation model indicated that increasing residential densities on transit routes decreased travel delay and reduced auto travel, the 2018 ECOS Plan pushed this growth target to 90% of homes in growth areas. When more people live closer to transit routes and the transportation infrastructure supports walking and biking, those modes become more viable.
The jobs and housing imbalance is not unique to Chittenden County. Generally, as metropolitan areas expand and the price of real estate within urban centers rises, it is common for households to move away from core employment centers in search of lower-cost housing. Suburban areas offer more housing affordability but it often comes at the expense of prime agricultural soils and natural ecosystems, and it adds the economic burden of a longer commute.
Initiatives such as the Building Homes Together Campaign, can help reconnect employment centers and residential neighborhood, achieve environmental sustainability and support community livability.
Marshall is a transportation planner at the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. He works to develop transportation studies related to roadways, bridges, intersections, bike/pedestrian facilities and public transit. He also manages the development of the CCRPC’s federally mandated Unified Planning Work Program. Marshall holds a BA in Geography from the University of Vermont and an MA in Natural Resources from Virginia Tech.