When rural land is worth more than ever, what of those who value it most?
By Ben Hewitt
Jan 03 2022
Mixed BlessingsPhoto Credit : Illustration by Tom Haugomat
Down at Kyle’s place, we leaned against the bed of my truck and engaged in the time-honored tradition of shooting the bull. I’d stopped by to drop off an old motorcycle that a friend had given me the year before. “It was running three years ago” is what my friend had told me, before adding, “Well, it was sort of running.” But I’d heard only the first part, because that was the part I wanted to hear, and so I’d brought the bike home, where I proceeded to get it about halfway disassembled before realizing I was in over my head. Way over my head. And so there it sat in the shed, with various bits of it strewn about, until I got tired of moving the darn thing every time I needed something that was stored deeper in the shed. That’s when it occurred to me that perhaps Kyle would take it.
“My friend told me it was running four years ago,” I told him (by that time, I’d clung to the possibility for nearly a year that I’d actually get it back together). Then, in a voice that was maybe just a tiny bit quieter: “Well, he said it was sort of running.” But Kyle, bless him, had heard only the first part, and the bike was his.
So there we were, having unloaded the motorcycle, along with the oil-stained cardboard box of parts that was most of what he needed to put it back together. It was a beautiful evening, sun-streaked and soft, the late daylight hitting us at just the right angle. A fellow could lean against the bed of a truck shooting the bull for a very long while on an evening like this, and indeed, there are times when I believe there might not be any higher purpose to life than doing just such a thing.
Kyle got to telling me how he and his fiancée had tried to buy a house recently, a modest place not far from the modest home they were renting, a place with enough space for a garden and a yard for their kids to play in. Just the sort of place that, in my humble opinion, every young couple deserves to raise their family, if indeed that’s what they want and they’re willing to put in the work to make it happen. Which I knew Kyle and his fiancée were, and then some. But they’d been outbid at the last minute by a cash buyer who’d offered the seller more money, and the deal had gone south.
Kyle shook his head. I shook mine. “Doesn’t seem right” is what I said, or something like that, and what I meant wasn’t so much that the particular circumstances didn’t seem right, but that the whole set of circumstances didn’t seem right.
When Penny and I bought our first piece of land in 1997, we paid $30,000 for 40 acres. At the time, it felt almost unreal—it was so much money to us, more than I’d ever imagined myself spending on anything—and in the days leading up to our closing, I remember being terribly afraid that we’d made a mistake from which we’d never recover. Surely the real estate market couldn’t sustain such astronomical prices; surely it would crash soon after (most likely, the day after) we closed, and the folly of our decision would haunt us forever.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how we managed to buy that land, and how I don’t think we’d be able to do it again—at least not in the same way, which involved saving what we could until we’d amassed the 50 percent down payment that the bank required from young borrowers looking to purchase undeveloped land. We were each making approximately $10 per hour at the time; adjusted for inflation, that’s about $17 per hour, and I can’t imagine any scenario in 2022 whereby a young couple could make a collective $34 per hour and keep food on the table, a car on the road, and a (rented) roof over their heads, and save enough to buy property.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. Suddenly, it seems as if everyone wants to be in Vermont, and all factors that previously dissuaded would-be transplants have been relegated to secondary consideration. Or even to being unworthy of any consideration at all. Because really, what’s a few blackflies, or a couple of weeks of axle-deep mud, or even a 20-below cold snap in the face of a pandemic that’s landed a whole lot harder pretty much everywhere else than here?
In just the past year, Vermont has seen real estate prices rise by double-digit percentages, a trend that’s largely been driven by out-of-state buyers (in October 2020, a whopping 60 percent of Vermont real estate was purchased by people living elsewhere). Truth is, if I were in their shoes, I’d probably be looking for my little slice of the Green Mountain State too. And it’s equally likely that I wouldn’t be thinking too hard about what that means for young families like Kyle’s.
There’s no easy fix for any of this. Two years ago, the hand-wringing was over the population decline in Vermont (and by extension, the Northeast Kingdom). Now, it’s over the dearth of housing and the skyrocketing price of real estate as more and more people move in. As the pandemic has reminded us in so many ways, what you expect and what you get are often very different things, and lamenting the chasm between the two does about as much good as it’s always done.
Lately I have the sense that the Kingdom is at a juncture. I see new people moving in, many of them astonished to find that for the same price as a down payment on a house back home, they can procure the winning bid here. I see the push for universal broadband, the rise in remote working. I’ve even seen a few Teslas.
But mostly, I see families like Kyle’s scrambling to figure out how they fit into this emerging economy, which seems to mirror more and more closely the deep-seated inequities that have long existed elsewhere. And I hope that amid all this change, the Kingdom does not lose what makes it so special to me and to so many others. There’s no easy or right way to describe exactly what that is, maybe because although many of us feel it, it’s also a little different to each. But my version goes something like this: The Northeast Kingdom is a place where humankind’s dependence on the land remains transparently evident, and where one cannot fall victim to the delusion that such dependence does not exist.
After shooting the bull for a while longer, I bid Kyle farewell. It was getting on toward dinnertime, the sun low in the sky, a chill moving in. “Well,” I said, “good luck with the house hunt.” He shrugged his shoulders and grinned. “Oh, I suspect we’ll figure it out eventually,” he replied. I was pretty sure he was right.