hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues April 2021


New blood for a rural region

Urban transplants fleeing pandemic set stage for change ­— or maybe not


A view of the Stratton Mountain ski area in Winhall, Vt., where town officials say weekend and seasonal homes have become full-time residences for people fleeing urban areas amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo by Joan K. Lentini.


A view of the Stratton Mountain ski area in Winhall, Vt., where town officials say weekend and seasonal homes have become full-time residences for people fleeing urban areas amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo by Joan K. Lentini.


Contributing writer


Soon after Covid-19 began shutting down the big cities along the East Coast last spring, the second-home owners began arriving in Winhall to take refuge.

The town on the eastern edge of Bennington County is the gateway to the Stratton Mountain ski resort and within an easy drive of several other major ski areas. Hundreds of second homes and weekend ski houses line the roads to Stratton’s base lodge.

“Our population is typically 800 year-round,” said Julie Isaacs, the chairwoman of the town Select Board. “Now there’s a lot more people on our rural dirt roads.”

Winhall is hardly alone. From Columbia County and the Berkshires north into Vermont and the Adirondacks, local government officials, real estate agents and others have been reporting an influx of people from urban areas since the pandemic began just over a year ago. And though much of the evidence is anecdotal, at least some of these new residents seem to be planning to stay for the long term.

Houses are selling briskly, even those that had been on the market for years, with some being snapped up within hours of listing at higher than the asking price. There are reports of more people shopping at local stores and dumping their trash at local transfer stations, and in some cases more children enrolling in local schools.

Given that the year-round population in much of the region has been stable or declining in recent decades, many local officials say the prospect of a wave of new residents is good economic news.

But local planning experts caution that firm numbers are scarce and hard to interpret. It will take a few years, they say, to figure out exactly how the Covid-19 pandemic is reshaping the region’s population. Newcomers buying houses might be offset by sellers who leave the area. And to the extent new people are moving in, the big question is: Will they stay?


The town of Winhall, Vt., normally has about 800 year-round residents, but over the past year it has seen an influx of people from urban areas seeking a safer haven amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Joan K. Lentini photo


The town of Winhall, Vt., normally has about 800 year-round residents, but over the past year it has seen an influx of people from urban areas seeking a safer haven amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Joan K. Lentini photo


In Winhall, Isaacs said she has no hard estimate of how many occasional residents have decided to make the town their home for the duration of the pandemic. The town doesn’t have municipal water or sewer lines, so it can’t look at water use.

“The easiest way for us to make sense of that is just how much busier the transfer station was,” Isaacs said. “Most weeks are like holidays used to be. … The transfer station expenses have definitely gone up. We’ve had to hire more people.”

The town highway department has been busy patching more potholes, the town police (who are also EMTs) have answered more calls, and the town clerk has been deluged with property transfers, she said.

Winhall doesn’t operate its own school; instead, it pays a share of tuition for the town’s students to attend public or private schools in the area.

As of September, the local school board had received tuition requests for 54 more children for the 2020-21 school year, an increase of more than 25 percent. The town may have to reconsider the amount it allows for tuition when it holds its town meeting this month, Isaacs said.
So far, the tide shows no signs of reversing.

“We’re happy to have people,” Isaacs said. “We’re just adjusting and moving on. People have to be pretty flexible to live in Vermont.”


A population in flux
Although it’s clear the pandemic has caused a wave of migration, there’s little hard data to gauge the extent or details of that movement. The pandemic struck just as the 2020 census was getting started, so people who moved were packing up as census forms arrived in mailboxes.

“What data do you use? Everything lags,” said Richard Watts, director of the Center for Research on Vermont at the University of Vermont.

Vermont’s property transfer data for 2020 won’t be released until late April, he said. School enrollment numbers come out months after the start of a school year.

A national survey by the Pew Research Center found that, as of June 2020, about 22 percent of U.S. adults had moved because of Covid-19, had someone move in with them, or knew someone else who had. More than 37 percent of respondents aged 18-29 fell into that group, mostly because of job losses and the closing of college dormitories.

Of those who relocated, 61 percent moved in with a family member, 13 percent went to a vacation home, and 9 percent moved to a new home, either rented or purchased. As restrictions and infections continued to climb, more people of means started looking for places they perceived as safer from infection and where isolation wouldn’t mean being confined to an urban apartment for weeks on end.

In New York and Massachusetts, although areas like the Hudson Valley and Berkshires might benefit from an influx of people, that trend is being overwhelmed at a statewide level by a pandemic-driven exodus from the New York City and Boston areas.

In January, an annual report on moving data by United Van Lines showed New York was second only to New Jersey in outbound migration in 2020, with people leaving the state outnumbering inbound moves by a 2-1 margin. Massachusetts ranked eighth for outbound moves, with 57 percent of the moving company’s jobs involving people leaving the state. Vermont had more arrivals than departures, but because the company had fewer than 250 customers in the state, it didn’t supply percentages.


Reconnecting to Vermont
Last summer, the Center for Research on Vermont and the Vermont Futures Project, a data-driven initiative of the Vermont Chamber Foundation, teamed up to survey people who were coming to Vermont because of the pandemic. They reached out on social media, through professional networks and other channels and eventually collected 226 responses.

Along with basics such as age, location, occupation, and education, the survey posed three questions: Why did you come to Vermont? What do you need in order to stay? What could the state do to keep you here?

Several themes emerged. First, not everyone had Covid-19 as their main reason for moving in, but most cited Vermont’s low infection rate, and their general approval of how the state was handling the pandemic, as important factors in their decision.

“Our previous research indicates that this is a mix of people with connections to the state, have either lived here, went to school here, have a home here or are frequent visitors,” Watts said in an email. “In many cases they may be bringing their jobs with them. They have connections here and shared values. They like many of the things that make Vermont Vermont, from the sense of community to the front door into nature.”

Most of the respondents settled in areas with good Internet service, mainly in the Burlington area, around Montpelier and to the east, and in southeastern Vermont, closer to Boston.
As a group, they were highly educated: 92 percent were college graduates, and 60 percent worked for for-profit businesses. Others held white-collar jobs in nonprofits, education or government.

Thirty-five percent said they were likely or very likely to stay after the pandemic ends, 30 percent were uncertain, and the rest planned to leave. The older people were, and the longer they’d been in the state, the more likely they were to stay.

Watts cautioned that his data shouldn’t be taken to represent all recent arrivals, because they were a self-selected group at the higher end of the economic scale. But the survey gave some sense of who is moving in and what their priorities are.

Still, apart from the pandemic, the pull of urban living remains strong.
“After 9/11, rural areas like Vermont were supposed to see a big surge from the cities, and that did not happen,” Watts said.

Current figures from the online real estate firm Zillow show that nationally, the overall number of people moving into cities still is offsetting the number that are leaving.

Vermont’s population, in contrast, has been stagnant for years. The state added only about 500 people in the last 10 years, and its average age is the second oldest in the nation. The Vermont Futures Project’s research shows that because of the state’s shrinking work force, the number of Vermont jobs held by people out of state is growing – a trend that has grave implications for future tax revenue and school enrollment.

“Vermont’s demographic cliff is a real challenge for our future,” Watts said. “The state has a critical opportunity here.”

Estimates by Jeff Carr, an economist who advises Gov. Phil Scott, suggest Vermont could attract between 8,700 and 10,900 new residents as a result of the pandemic.

But whether they stay on depends on whether the pandemic can be tamed and how well the state meets newcomers’ needs.

“This won’t solve all the state’s problems, but it’s one slice of the solution,” Watts said. “The state needs to double down on the things that make Vermont attractive.”

Those include protecting the state’s environment and supporting its communities, he said.
After years of losing young workers to other states, “clearly people are rethinking Vermont,” Watts said. “This is a huge opportunity.”

Watts said he plans to return to the survey respondents in a month or two and see where they are now, and why.


A real estate boom
In much of eastern New York and western New England, the housing market was tight even before the pandemic. Columbia and Berkshire counties and Vermont have long had a shortage of market-rate houses and apartments. So the arrival of many new people from outside the area has increased the competition for what housing there is, driving up prices.

Nathan Mastroeni, a regional manager for Four Seasons Sotheby’s International Realty, said the market in Vermont took off last May, when real estate offices were allowed to reopen, and the boom had continued through the winter.

“We’re seeing the same thing in all markets, across resort and residential areas: low inventory, high prices, and lots of offers,” he said. “Most of the sales are in resort areas. People are taking advantage of the market to sell houses they may not be using much. In residential areas, people are selling more for traditional reasons -- to change school districts or to move closer to work.”
Mastroeni, whose office is in Rutland, said the Killington area mostly attracts people from New York City, New Jersey and Boston. The buyers are a mix, with “a heavy weight toward remote work for people with kids, without kids, and about to retire but able to work remotely.”
He noted that Vermont’s historically spotty Internet service is getting better.

“We can sell houses in areas with fiber-optics,” he said. “Those areas were warmer before the surge started.”

What will happen next is anybody’s guess, Mastroeni said, but “all signs point to a solid continuation.”

“Buyer demand is still high,” he said. “Interest rates are going up a bit, but that’s not going to stop anybody.”

Lyle Jepson, executive director of the Chamber and Economic Development of the Rutland Region, estimated that home values in the Rutland area have risen by 20 percent to 25 percent, based on what he’s heard from real estate agents.

“All towns are seeing interest,” Jepson said. “There are situations where homes have been purchased sight unseen, with the sellers receiving several offers. How long this will last remains to be seen.”

One factor that may be working in Vermont’s favor is that the state “has a reputation of being careful” about Covid-19, both at the governmental level and among citizens, Jepson said. By the end of April, most of the state’s adults are expected to have received at least one vaccine dose.
The Rutland chamber has a program, realrutland.com, that connects people interested in moving to the area with a volunteer who can answer their questions. Since Dec. 1, the website has received 64 inquiries from 22 states and four countries, Jepson said. He knew of one person who relocated from Hawaii to be closer to family in nearby New York, while continuing to work at a job in Hawaii remotely.

State school enrollment statistics suggest that high-income resort areas may be more attractive to parents of school-aged children than the state’s cities. Killington’s elementary school, for example, saw its student population increase from 98 in October 2018 to 121 in October 2020, even as enrollment has been shrinking in Rutland city schools and statewide.


Mixed signs in the Berkshires
As in Vermont, there’s plenty of evidence in western Massachusetts that properties are selling and people are moving to the area, though there are no firm numbers yet. Although most of the popular summer attractions in the Berkshires were closed last summer or open only on a limited basis, many tourists and summer residents still visited.

“As for the year-round population, we have no evidence that our population is going up or going down due to Covid,” said Mark Maloy, a program manager at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. “There is an assumption that the population is going up due to out-of-towners buying properties here. But until we get census numbers and look at migration statistics, there is no way to confirm. The data often takes several years before it gets reported.”

What’s also unclear, he said, is whether any newcomers are merely riding out the pandemic or might wind up staying permanently.

“Overall, it will take several years to understand the long-term implication of Covid on our regional population,” Maloy said.

Massachusetts public school enrollment statistics, released in January, showed a loss of 490 students in Berkshire County between October 2019 and October 2020. Based on prior trends, the county was expected to lose only 269 students. The other 221 may have switched to virtual schools outside the county, to private schools, or to home schooling, according to an analysis by the regional planning commission. Many of those students are expected to return when the pandemic passes.

There have been news reports suggesting that some private schools in the Berkshires had an influx of new students, but the state has not yet released those numbers.

Eric Steuernagle, the owner of Fairground Real Estate in Great Barrington and president of the Berkshire County Board of Realtors, said brokers in the Berkshires have been very busy since the outset of the pandemic.

“We have less than a two-month inventory now, down 60 percent from this time last year,” he said. “The demand from buyers is greater.”

Buyers also appear to be pursuing more costly properties.
Across the county, the dollar volume of sales under contract jumped from $46 million in February 2020 to $102 million in February 2021, Steuernagle said. The number of closed sales, 68, was up from 65 in the same month last year.

The boom has affected “pretty much the whole county,” with no town or area predominating, Steuernagle said. People’s reasons for selling “are all different,” he said, and could include cashing out while the market is hot, upgrading, or moving out of the area.

Sandy Carroll, the executive director of the Berkshire County Board of Realtors, said more people within the county are looking to move.

Other buyers are coming from “all across the country,” Steuernagle said. Although the common assumption is that the Berkshires primarily attract people from Connecticut and metro New York, he said he’s seen people from Texas, the West Coast, and everywhere in between.

“Predominantly they’re from cities,” he said, adding that the biggest influx seems to be adults aged 30 to 55 with families. Partly because of concerns about Covid, many want to avoid being crowded by neighbors, he added.

Carroll said potential buyers are looking farther north as the more desirable towns in the southern Berkshires become more competitive.

Access to broadband has moved up in priority, she added. The state has pushed “last mile” connectivity in the last few years, but some communities are still waiting.

“That’s definitely a factor people ask about when doing their research,” Carroll said.
Covid also is changing ideas about house layouts, Carroll said. Nationally, open floor plans are falling out of favor. In a world where a house has to fill many functions, people see more value in separate spaces for home offices, study areas, and other needs of a stay-at-home era.


Young adults returning
Rural areas in upstate New York swarmed with visitors last summer, with many people seeking out vacation rentals because quarantine restrictions kept them from leaving the state. Many others were looking for a new place to live.

“People are coming from all over,” said Angela Lanuto, an associate broker at Coldwell Banker Village Green Realty. Her business covers six counties in the Catskills and Hudson Valley.
Many buyers in Columbia County are from metropolitan New York City, but the northern part of the county is also seeing house hunters from Rensselaer County, where there’s a housing shortage, Lanuto said. Others are Massachusetts residents who feel they “may get more for their money” in New York.

Many of those moving in were already familiar with the region.
“The generation that grew up here is coming back,” Lanuto said. “We see a lot of millenials purchasing. People who could have bought secondary homes are now buying primary homes. They can work at home.”

Others will work msinly at home but take Amtrak to the city if they need to go into the office, she said.

Lanuto, who is president of the Columbia-Greene Board of Realtors, said some newcomers are wary of future pandemics.

“People who were thinking of moving in a few years are saying, ‘We want a game plan in case this ever happens again,’” Lanuto said.

Who’s selling?

“Some people want a bigger house,” Lanuto said. “They’re selling their little weekend house. Some are retiring sooner and moving out of state. People who were thinking of selling in a few years are selling now.”

At the same time, mortgage rates are low.
“Offers are coming very quickly as houses come on the market,” Lanuto said. “Houses are getting offers within a week.”

As a result of the competition, “prices are staggering,” Lanuto said.
According to rockethomes.com, the median list price for Columbia County homes has increased by 30.3 percent since February of last year, from $495,000 to $645,000. Lanuto said there were 230 new listings in the county and 237 properties sold during the last quarter of 2020, compared with 153 new listings and only 148 sales during the same quarter in 2019.

“The level of movement is consistent across the county,” Lanuto said. “Every area has been having sales.”

If new residents are bringing children with them, however, the state’s public school enrollment numbers aren’t showing them.

Between October 2019 and October 2020, six of the Columbia County’s seven school districts lost students, and one saw its enrollment stay flat. Total enrollment in the county dropped by 257 students.

Columbia County had been expected to see a population boom after 9/11, but between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the county’s population stayed essentially level.

This time, some say the people who’ve decamped to the region because of the pandemic are more likely to stay, thanks to new abilities to work and attend school remotely.

Or they might not. Watts, of the University of Vermont, said there are many reasons people might be drawn back to the New York or Boston areas after the pandemic ends, including work and family ties.

And for some, he said, “living in the city is exciting.”