Many rural New England areas are attractive to people who want a second or vacation home and retirees. Almost 29 percent of New England's rural housing units are vacant, and almost 75 percent of those vacant units are designated for seasonal, recreational, or occasional use. Only 3.5 percent is available for rent. That imbalance, combined with efforts to conserve acreage and preserve viewsheds, effectively diminishes the supply of housing and makes it unaffordable for many low- and moderate-income residents.
Because of the limited housing stock, many low-income rural New Englanders seek federally subsidized housing (aka "Section 8"), but the demand for such housing exceeds the Department of Housing and Urban Development's ability to keep up. That means that would-be renters face one- to two-year waits for Section 8 housing. Some have moved to motels, finding them cheaper than any area housing, and some end up couch-surfing.
The researchers say changes in policy can help the situation, but it will require approaches on several different fronts. At the local level, residents can encourage local zoning and planning boards to require a certain percentage of housing units to meet affordability standards and offer incentives to developers for building affordable housing. Zoning boards could also reduce lot size requirements and allow construction of multi-family housing such as duplexes, townhouses or apartments.
Communities with a high percentage of seasonal rentals or vacancies caused by seniors moving to assisted living could encourage those homeowners to rent to families instead of allowing their homes to sit vacant.
"Of course, affordable housing is not just an issue in New England—rather, the issue affects rural (and urban) families across the nation. At the federal level, policies that fund and support upgrades to existing housing and expand access to existing subsidy programs could relieve some of the pressure on rural residents. However, as budgets from both the President and the House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations include significant cuts to HUD programs that support low income housing options, state and local policy makers and practitioners may have to continue efforts that extend beyond the federal safety net," the report says.