Climate migrants flock to Vermont, but is the state ready?

Some say Vermont’s climate outlook, while still problematic, looks better than other parts of the country. That’s leading to so called ‘Climate Migrators’ findi
Published: Dec. 23, 2021 at 7:56 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A University of Vermont study found that Vermont is getting warmer and wetter, due to climate change. Across the country in the West, it’s also getting warmer and drier, leading to more devastating fires.

Some say Vermont’s climate outlook, while still problematic, looks better than other parts of the country. That’s leading so-called Climate Migrators to find refuge in Vermont.

As the Paradise fire of 2018 closed in on the Cashman family home in California, Jen Cashman says that was her final straw.

“I turned to my husband, and I said, ‘I’m done, we are out of California, I can’t do this anymore,’” said Cashman, who recently moved to Stowe.

Cashman is part of a group of people called “Climate Migrants.” Their communities have been rendered uninhabitable, so they look elsewhere.

“A friend of ours mentioned we might like Stowe, Vermont,” Cashman said.

Others have already followed in Cashman’s footsteps; however, the state does not track this data, though they may in the future.

“If you handed me 10 families to find places to live, it wouldn’t be easy,” said Michael Hickey, a realtor with KW Vermont.

Vermont still sits in a seller’s market, where its affordable housing inventory is low, sending up home prices. Hickey uses his home market of Brattleboro as an example. He says 65 single-family homes typically are on the market at any given time. But right now, there are only about 10.

“We just don’t have any inventory,” said Hickey.

Despite the need for homes, this isn’t a “build it, and they will come” scenario. Hickey says deeper issues like broadband connectivity hinder Vermont’s ability to accept more people.

UVM Professor of Community Development and Applied Economics Chris Koliba says from a social and economic standpoint, Vermont probably isn’t ready to take in more people.

Koliba says COVID was a good bellwether for what an influx of people could look like. But it did strain resources, and he says it’s time to work on our weak points to prepare for people.

“Upgrading our sewer and water treatment systems, again affordable housing, the child care needs and whatnot,” said Koliba.

Koliba also says we must be conscious of who will come. He says the early folks finding Vermont have the means to come here, but there will also be people coming who don’t.

“We need to grow it from all stratus of the economic ladder,” said Koliba.

Koliba says new Americans, low-income folks and people ranging in backgrounds, ages and ethnicities can’t be left out. They are often considered the most vulnerable to a changing climate.

He says on the bright side, folks forced to move do have incredible upside.

“You know, people who have to migrate, pick themselves up and move, are resilient, they have grit. They need jobs, they need to feel included and they need housing and shelter,” said Koliba.

Koliba says this is not a mass evacuation scenario and there shouldn’t be a mass number moving at once, so there’s some time to prepare.

Federal COVID relief money is providing opportunities to build and improve broadband, as well as homes.

“So we need a concerted effort to really think about and plan for across the state about how we are going to absorb this population,” said Koliba.

But waves of potential Vermonters will eventually come as natural disasters ruin other parts of the country.

Hickey says Vermont is an attractive offer, he says safety sells.

“We’re not completely isolated, but it is a safe place you can feel comfortable raising a family,” said Hickey.

A message a three-year Vermonter and climate migrator can agree with.

“I feel lucky and blessed to live here, and I wake up every day saying, ‘Wow, we are so lucky.’ That feeling of comfort and safety and waking up and thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be a good day,’” said Cashman.

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