When Emily Nadeau was offered a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, it wasn’t a job she wanted to turn down, but she considered ditching the offer.

For six months, Nadeau and her husband canvassed Burlington and nearby towns for a pet-friendly apartment within their $2,200 monthly budget. But by September, a few weeks before her first day of work, Nadeau still couldn’t find a place nearby to live.

“It was horrible -- I cried constantly,” said Nadeau, who spent hours each day scouring rental listings while writing her dissertation from her home in Kentucky. “All of it was making me feel like this was impossible. I legitimately believed that I was going to be homeless.”

Nadeau, like many other home seekers, has been forced to deal with rising housing prices and limited choices. The lack of affordable housing is threatening school administrators’ ability to attract and hire employees. So now the University of Vermont and a number of schools across the country are tackling the housing crunch head-on with a new strategy: building homes targeting faculty and staff.

“People come to Vermont and expect everything to be a lot cheaper, but we don’t have the economy of scale that the cities have,” said Richard Cate, UVM’s vice president for finance and administration.

The University of Vermont plans to invest $22 million in a deal with a local developer to build 295 units of housing, 100 of which would be ready for occupancy in summer 2024 and the balance available in two additional phases with full completion in summer 2026.

Chittenden County, where the school is located, has a population of about 169,000, up 3% since 2019. A surge of out-of-state buyers, often with bigger budgets than locals, descended on Vermont during the pandemic in search of vacation homes. Some scooped up homes that were previously being rented by owners, depleting already tight inventory. The apartment vacancy rate is 0.4%, the lowest in 20 years, according to latest available data by real estate advisory firm Allen, Brooks & Minor Inc. That’s way below the average rate of 1.7% since 2000.

In such a small town, any influx can throw the market out of whack. “If we end up with another 1,000 people, it can completely disrupt the availability of housing,” Cate said.

While rent prices rose 2.7% between 2020 and 2021, an increase cushioned in part by government rent-relief programs, prices are expected to jump over the next year, said Brad Minor, a principal at Allen, Brooks & Minor. That presents a challenge as the University of Vermont tries to grow.

“During the pandemic, Vermont became a pretty hot place to relocate to. We have seen an increase in demand, and the housing stock across Vermont is not keeping up with the desire,” said David Provost, Middlebury College’s executive vice president of finance and administration. “From a standpoint of attracting and retaining staff, we felt we needed to get more involved in the solution.”

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