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Affordable housing also an issue for farmers, advocates convene

By Bob Wagner, LAP Tenure & Innovations Task Force Leader

What can be learned and applied from the experiences of community housing advocates to the challenge of providing affordable housing for farmers and their employees, especially for new and beginning farmers as they seek access to land?

This question was front and center of a unique convening of 25 representatives of affordable housing organizations and farmland access and farming advocates from across New England held this spring in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

The often high, contributory value of housing to the price of available farms makes access to farmland not just an affordable farmland issue but an affordable housing issue as well.  Recognizing and addressing this relationship is but one of many challenges to farmland access and tenure being explored by Land For Good’s Land Access Project (LAP); a three-year initiative, funded in-part by a USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development grant, to improve programs and policies around land access and transfer in each New England state.

A Farmer Housing sub-committee of the project organized the gathering of land conservation and community housing organizations from across the region to share their experiences, challenges, techniques and ideas to create and expand affordable, on-farm housing options and opportunities. Challenges identified by the group included:

  • Fair Housing requirements for public funding and/or tax incentives will not allow the housing produced or supported to be limited to a sub-category of homeowners; for example, income-eligible farmers.
  • Publicly funded farmland protection programs, which can help to otherwise reduce the cost of farmland to a new and beginning farmer, do not always include the house or provisions for a house in the protection agreement.
  • Existing houses on farms in New England may be too big, energy inefficient and in need of repairs for a farm family to take on along with starting a farm business.
  • Current, local zoning codes can restrict creative housing alternatives that may provide suitable on-farm housing options, such as “tiny houses”, accessory dwelling units, and in-law apartments or houses to help facilitate inter-generational farm transfers.

Unlike many small businesses, housing is inextricably linked to the success and viability of a farm as a local business. While it is not impossible to commute from in-town housing to a farm, the preferred and more efficient arrangement is still to have on-farm housing. Advocates for new and beginning farmers need to drive home with policy makers that without adequate and available on-farm housing, local agriculture and its contributions to local economies will suffer.

This reality and the limitations of applying existing affordable housing programs to farm housing suggest a need to develop programs and funding sources specifically for farm housing.

The day’s discussion was fruitful in establishing a relationship between very closely aligned advocates. We share many common objectives, hopes and challenges. There is much to be gained through further collaboration and dialogue,” noted Nancy Everhart, Agricultural Director for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and a co-organizer of the convening.

The region’s farmland conservation organizations and state farmland protection programs can also explore and incorporate additional restrictions on houses and re-sales in new projects to help ensure that future sales are indeed affordable to the next farmer buyer. For example, provisions such as restrictions on the eventual size of the home; an option to purchase the house, if the farmer stops farming before leaving the farm; a cap on the amount that the house can contribute to the value of the farm (ex: a set % of the median value of a home in the area); basing the resale of the farm, including the house, on the income producing capacity of the farm or a percentage of the value of the easement at the time of protection, whichever is lower, were all discussed.

 

LAP2 is supported by a grant from the USDA/NIFA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (NIFA #2015-04544).

 

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