In a tight rental market, workforce housing can be a zero-sum game

In a tight rental market, workforce housing can be a zero-sum game

In a tight rental market, workforce housing can be a zero-sum game
The four-unit apartment in Middlebury, held by MACCAM 374 llc, was purchased by Scott MacGuffie as an investment. By Ethan Weinstein/VTDigger

For Krista Catrell, in a very real sense, Vermont’s burgeoning cannabis industry has turned her life upside down, and not in a good way.

The Addison County social services case manager had to borrow money and now works a second job after having to move into a more expensive apartment this summer. She and her neighbors were given notice to leave their Middlebury apartments on Mead Lane after the four-unit building was purchased by Scott MacGuffie, whose company Satori Investment Partners owns a large indoor cannabis growing facility on Route 7.

Catrell said she began to expect the termination of her lease not long after the property changed hands this spring. She came to believe that MacGuffie planned to use the apartments to house employees.

“Weird stuff started happening, you know. We’d be sitting outside, and people would walk to the property, or drive in and say, ‘You’re going to be in this unit, so-and-so is gonna be in this unit,’ before we even were moved out,” she recalled.

That was not the goal, MacGuffie said. The apartment building was an investment opportunity, he said, and is owned by a holding company, MACCAM 374 LLC, which is separate from his cannabis business.

However, MacGuffie told VTDigger he has since used one of the apartments to house visiting contractors for his cannabis business, and a second unit has housed one of his business partners. A third unit is vacant, and MacGuffie did not specify the use of the fourth unit.

“It’s fair to say (the apartment building) provides flexibility to the business,” MacGuffie said. “And we may choose to use it for employees, but the intent was as an investment property.”

Though every circumstance is unique, this one highlights an increasing trend in Vermont’s housing and workforce crises. With so little supply, some employers are choosing to house their staff. And when that means purchasing existing rentals, the process can be a zero-sum game. 

Stories of businesses building housing have cropped up with increasing frequency. With hospital executives citing housing as a primary problem in their industry, the University of Vermont Medical Center plans to build 61 employee apartments for staff, and Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center is planning a similar project in New Hampshire.

At a virtual town hall this week, David Martins, director of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, discussed the worrying reality of employers renting to their employees.

“If I quit, or I get fired, now what do we do?” Martins posed. Tying work to one’s living situation creates the potential for a catastrophic change, if either of the two circumstances fall through, he suggested. But having employers think more about what it will take to ensure there are reasonable rentals for their staff could be a step toward finding solutions to Vermont’s shortage of workforce housing. 

“I personally think the spirit that’s behind moves like that, and the intention that’s behind moves like that, is worth fleshing out a little bit. How do we, you know, take that energy and find pathways that address these challenges?” Martins said. 

As workers turn down jobs due to a lack of housing, it’s no wonder employers have sought alternate solutions. But without enough supply, housing staff can mean upending a former tenant’s life.

Catrell works as a case manager at Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, a nonprofit helping low-income Addison County residents. In that role, she’s helped people navigate the exact situation she found herself in: looking for a place to live in a tight, expensive housing market.

 “It was just really ironic. And so if anything, now, you know, it gives me a better perspective of what people go through. Now I have the lived experience,” she said.

After Catrell was given notice to leave, she scrambled to find a new rental before Middlebury College students moved in for the school year in August. Her new rental is more expensive, she said, and that has caused challenges. 

“I had to borrow money from people. I had to move into a unit that I can’t afford. You know, I’m now working two jobs. And I’m beyond exhausted,” she said.

Meanwhile, MacGuffie — the cannabis business owner and landlord — has worked to establish his new cannabis business, Satori Seven South. Satori has six employees it hired locally and two who relocated now working in its more than 100,000-square-foot facility, according to MacGuffie. He hopes to have 20 total employees by the end of the year.

Cannabis retail sales begin Oct. 1, and the Cannabis Control Board has been busy approving licenses for businesses in one of Vermont’s newest economic sectors. 

“We’ve taken a building that was abandoned and we remediated the contamination, and we’re bringing back a vital part of the community,” MacGuffie said of Satori’s Route 7 growing location. “It’s now going to be an employer generating jobs and revenue and supporting families throughout the county.”

Catrell, for her part, does not feel supported. “I even told Scott,” she recalled, “I said, ‘listen, I do good things for this community.’”

Paying more for housing and working more to afford it, Catrell said she is uncertain of her future. After her recent rental experience, settling into a new apartment feels risky.

“Now I’m barely unpacked. Because, you know, I just never really know what’s going to happen,” she said.

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In a tight rental market, workforce housing can be a zero-sum game

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