Home Precarious Home
My decision to move to Vermont was a very deliberate one, though the specifics of how and where I made my way up here were largely decided by chance. I did not grow up here, or anywhere near here, but it only took one long weekend visiting with my husband in 2014 to fall in love. That it was during peak fall foliage certainly helped sweep us off our feet.
We’d been falling out of love with New York City, the place we’d called home for over a decade. We craved more space, less stress, more nature, less competition. A retreat from chaos. It took three years, but we finally found ourselves in a position to move to Vermont, made possible because I was granted permission to telecommute to my Brooklyn, NY job. Since moving here I’ve met a few others who have made their home in rural Vermont by way of a remote job, but sadly I’ve also gotten to know far more Vermonters who have abandoned the Green Mountains for greener job pastures down in New York City. Truly if Vermont wants to attract and retain a modern workforce, it has to invest in infrastructure that make more internet-depended jobs possible.
I say this because our search for a place in Vermont to call home quickly got narrowed down by three factors: cost, adequate space for our growing family to live and work from home, and access to hi-speed internet. The latter of which I barely considered until I began to realize how spotty it is in the country.
We also learned that the rental market in Vermont is incredibly limited. In our price range there was crummy student housing in Burlington, cramped duplex or condo situations near ski locales, or a handful of ramshackle farmhouses scattered about an hour outside the economic hubs of Burlington and Waterbury. Since we needed space to do our work from home (which includes my musician husband’s drumming), we decided to roll the dice on the one affordable farmhouse we could find with hi-speed internet available and dove head first into rural life. It still stuns me that I left all the familiarities of my life in New York, packed up all my worldly possessions -- including two cats and a newborn baby -- and moved sight unseen into a house in a town I’d never even heard of until a Craigslist search for a rental house led us to Hyde Park, Vermont.
After so many years living in small city apartments, I felt completely overwhelmed by the rambling expanse of our new home. Attached to the back of the house was a large, crumbling barn. I was dazzled by the idea of having a barn and daydreamed about all the entrepreneurial things I could adapt it into -- a shop, an event space, some kind of glamping AirBnB. But it was also a shadowy, hulking labyrinth that gave me the creeps; a wounded and festering appendage on our house. Meanwhile the rooms of the house had been reconfigured and repurposed so many times over the past hundred years there were doorways in illogical places and odd closets that lacked a sense of purpose. You had to walk through the bathroom to reach half of the upstairs bedrooms. For the first 24 hours I hunkered down like a scared animal in the master bedroom with my daughter in her bassinet, my terrified cats, my cell phone and my suitcase all within arms reach.
Still, we were charmed by this farmhouse and my husband and I talked excitedly about the renovations we would love to make and the ways we could restore the home to its former glory, and modernize it a bit. Our daughter wasn’t crawling yet, so the peeling paint, broken stair rails and loose floorboards didn’t seem as treacherous as they would in a few short months. Alas, reality set in when the owner started pressuring us to buy the place and we had to consider what a renovation would actually entail. It didn’t take long for us to ascertain that with our finances still recovering from our abusive relationship with NYC, and a baby in need of constant supervision, there was no way we’d be able to take this on. We were doomed to live in that decaying house, or to pack up our things...again.
In the end, and with a little help from a FHA mortgage, it made more financial sense to buy a house than to rent, and we were lucky to find a place that suited us on the north end of town. The whole experience really enlightened me to just how problematic and precarious the housing situation in Vermont is. If you have resources, be they financial or a bounty of time and energy, it’s a wonderland of a place with plenty of acreage and lax zoning restrictions where you can build your dream home and spread out into a marvelous homestead. But if you are living paycheck to paycheck, you may find it very hard to find reasonable housing, particularly near employment. And if you already own a house, the upkeep and the relatively high property taxes may be bleeding you dry.
I’ve always lived on the cusp of two worlds. I grew up in a mostly white, middle class suburb of Chicago on the edge of two townships. Because I was on the north side of 31st street, I went to the public high school that included several lower-income, black and Hispanic communities. To my classmates, I was a “rich white girl” because of where I lived. Yet to my friends from the neighboring high school in the wealthier community to our south, I was a “hoodrat” and they would lock their car doors when they came to my house. I felt neither rich nor poor, and by all external measures I had no real way of knowing my place. Which ultimately was a blessing that freed me from a certain burden of class identity, I suppose. Likewise through my years in New York City, my income generally found me living on the frontier of gentrifying neighborhoods that would price me out after a few years as the condos encroached.
Now as a homeowner in Vermont, I again feel suspended between two realities. On one hand I envy the spacious estates dotting the countryside with their solar panels and beautifully landscaped flower gardens while I live in constant fear of unexpected home repairs -- a leaky roof or our front porch suddenly detaching -- that I can see no way to afford. On the other hand, I look around and see so many properties for sale, sagging roofs, trailer homes held together with plywood, just truly desperate looking homesteads, and feel incredibly grateful that our house is sturdy, our mortgage rate is fixed, and at least for now the roof doesn’t leak.
I’m not sure yet what a sustainable economic future for Vermont looks like, but I know we’re lucky to be able to build a life here, and I hope our investment in this community helps in some small way to make it less precarious of a home for others over time.