Guest Column: The people paradox

By Kevin Chu 

From the Statehouse to the kitchen table, Vermonters agree that something must be done to fix the workforce and housing crises.

The data circulated in recent months has rapidly become common knowledge: 26,000 open jobs and 2.3 percent unemployment, meaning even if every unemployed person in Vermont finds a job, there would still be over 18,000 jobs open. Furthermore, workers need more housing options, so, as we attract more people to the state, we don’t exacerbate the issues in our existing tight housing market.

This seems like a paradox with no good answer.

Just as we’ve agreed on identifying the problems, we must also collectively choose growing our population as the solution, and work to increase housing capacity. Otherwise, we risk reduced economic productivity.

We need more people — especially younger people and people from diverse backgrounds — to create an economically secure, sustainable and equitable future for Vermont.

Why? Because our population and houses are both getting older. In order to sustain the values we espouse as a state and achieve well-being for Vermonters, we need to embrace growth and change. Our natural population change (births vs. deaths) has been trending downward for decades.

The largest age cohort in Vermont is 55-64. Workforce shortages will only get worse with a wave of retiring baby boomers over the next decade. Retirements won’t provide any relief for the housing market either. With the growing trend of aging in place and the lack of new homes being built, it’s unlikely the housing market will become more affordable without building significantly more homes.

Setting a goal of increasing our population and building more homes might seem to conflict with environmental sustainability values that are part of the Vermont ethos. However, we exist as part of a global system; people and pollutants move around. A person in need of a home who can’t find anything suitable in Vermont doesn’t just disappear. They find a home somewhere else.

Let’s take the lead on smart growth and embed sustainable practices into new development. Vermont passed a Global Warming Solutions Act and has a Climate Action Plan. If we are genuine in our desire to have an impact on a global scale, we should be inviting more people to come live here and participate in the solutions we’re building.

The Vermont Climate Action Plan states that “Vermont will need to prioritize helping the people who will be most affected by climate change.” The people who are most affected are not currently living in Vermont. They are vulnerable populations living in areas that will soon become uninhabitable due to drought, wildfires, flooding and other conditions exacerbated by climate change. Displaced climate refugees will be forced to leave their homes in search of a new place to settle. If Vermont truly believes in helping the people most affected by climate change, then we should be proactively preparing to make our state a viable place to relocate. 

There may already be climate migrants moving to Vermont, but the current economic conditions mean that they are mostly those with wealth and privilege coming here by choice with the resources to compete in a scarce housing market. This increases the burden for people already living in Vermont. Without embracing population growth and intentionally creating capacity for it, Vermont will become more stratified and increasingly inaccessible to low- and middle-income families that want to call this state their home. 

Many of the open jobs in Vermont are entry-level positions and do not require a college degree. These working families are the lifeline for our economy. Growing our population needs to be done equitably to sustain a robust economy and resilient communities where opportunities exist across the socio-economic spectrum.

If our long-term goals are to strengthen the economy and contribute to climate solutions, planned and sustainable population growth via in-migration can be the answer.

Paradox solved.

Kevin Chu of South Burlington is the executive director of the Vermont Futures Project, whose goal is supporting and encouraging long-term economic growth for Vermont.

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