With or without formal budgets, we all strive to have enough income to pay for the essentials things that enable us to thrive. Think “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence). Essentials include food, housing, utilities, transportation, health care, clothing, entertainment, and savings, among others (like child or elder care for some).

An income that facilitates savings is important for many reasons. Savings provides the means to address unanticipated needs, accumulate a mortgage down payment, pay for education, afford a vacation, or plan for retirement. Savings are the foundation for accomplishing family goals.

What is the essential most likely to be the wrecking ball of a household’s capacity to save? Answer: housing. For 30-plus years, housing costs, for both renters and homeowners, have increased faster than household incomes. Result: one in three South Burlington households cannot find housing whose costs don’t wreak havoc with their budgets. Setting aside savings becomes a pipedream. These households’ well-being can be at risk.

If you haven’t looked for housing lately, the numbers can be alarming. Most houses in South Burlington have price tags over $400,000. A $120,000 income is needed to support owning a $400,000 home and having a manageable budget. South Burlington’s median household income is $67,000, 56 percent of what puts most homes for sale here within reach.

South Burlington is a great place to live, work, raise a family, and play. Still, housing prices make it difficult to move here or “move up” as families grow. Housing costs are a barrier to attracting people to come here to work, slowing economic and population growth.

Older residents leave Vermont’s labor force to retire and younger workers are too few to replace them. There were 3,400 jobs lost since June. Sluggish economic growth contributed to the downgrading of Vermont’s bond rating. Everyone pays more when State government issues bonds, for example, to build new schools. We all have a stake in policies that add housing priced within reach of middle-income households — the mainstay of South Burlington’s vibrancy.

The private market constructs limited housing accessible to low- and middle-income households. Federal and state, plus nonprofit, programs, address this shortfall. Local efforts also contribute. South Burlington’s Housing Committee works toward adding housing targeted to our over-stretched “middle.” Visit:


Note: What “formula” tells us that a $120,000 income is necessary to purchase a $400,000 house? Eighty years ago, the federal government started programs for households whose incomes were too low to pay for housing. To provide equitable assistance, it developed a standard for measuring when housing costs placed undue stress on household budgets. This standard is 30 percent. When housing costs exceed 30 percent of the household’s gross income, housing costs exceed this “affordability” standard.

Understandably, 30 percent doesn’t work for all households. If a household has very low commuting costs because employed members walk or bike to work, housing costs greater that exceed 30 percent are likely to be manageable. Alternatively, for a household having high child care expenses, housing costs at 30 percent of income may not be sustainable.

Sandy Dooley

Vice-Chair, South Burlington Affordable Housing Committee

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