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Westgate board president and resident Julie Maloof, right, confers with Westgate Housing Inc. Community Director Jon Hoover last Saturday at the tenant-owned housing complex in Brattleboro.

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Resident-owners of Westgate approve new partnership

Tenant-led nonprofit joins with Windham & Windsor Housing Trust

BRATTLEBORO—At their annual meeting, residents of the Westgate housing community unanimously approved creating a new partnership with the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.

The new partnership will be between the tenant-led nonprofit Westgate Housing Inc. (WHI) that owns and manages the property and the Housing Trust.

Westgate will remain a tenant-owned property, said Westgate board President and resident Julie Maloof.

The Housing Trust isn’t taking over ownership or management of the property. Instead, the organization is stepping in as a partner to the residents to provide guidance and oversee large financial projects such as future rehabilitation of the property, Maloof and Community Director Jon Hoover said.

Maloof said the Trust takes the place of longterm partner Housing Vermont of Burlington.

Housing Vermont helped Westgate tenants purchase the housing community from private investors in 2000. According to materials from the Westgate board, Housing Vermont always intended to turn its portion of the Westgate partnership over to another organization.

Windham & Windsor Housing Trust seemed the natural choice since it already owned the land Westgate sits on and has provided helpful guidance over the years, Maloof and Hoover said.

Hoover said that while turnout was lower than he would have liked at the May 14 annual meeting, the vote was unanimous.

Hoover said he and members of the Westgate board conducted a lot of outreach prior to the vote.

Westgate is a tenant-led, nonprofit, affordable-housing community in West Brattleboro. Two hundred and fifty residents call the 98-unit property home.

According to Westgate’s website, the property was developed in 1971 by a private company. That company had obtained funding through the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency on the promise to maintain affordable rents for at least 20 years.

When the original contract ended, so did some of the HUD protections keeping rents affordable. The Westgate Tenants Association tried to purchase the property multiple times. In 2000, tenants and Housing Vermont purchased Westgate with the help of a few other nonprofits like the Housing Trust.

The tenants, with help from Housing Vermont, formed a new nonprofit, Westgate Housing Inc.

Thanks to the residents’ vote last Saturday, the Trust will step in where Housing Vermont left off.

Affordable housing at Westgate means that approximately half the residents have some form of housing subsidy or Section 8 voucher, Hoover said. Other residents pay rents based on 30 percent of their income but no less than minimum rents established for the apartments and no more than a maximum rate.

Maloof moved to Westgate in 2009. She joined the board in 2011.

“It’s nice to be around people who see potential,” she said. “It’s not a perfect property, but it’s a strong one.”

The May 14, vote falls at a halfway point for the new partnership.

Before the vote, WHI board members and representatives of Housing Vermont and the Housing Trust spent approximately two years preparing the ground for a partnership.

Now that residents have given their blessing, the partnership enters its next phase: finalization.

The board will formally ratify the partnership by signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between WHI and the Trust at an upcoming board meeting.

According to Hoover, WHI and the Trust must hammer out the partners’ legal agreement before January 2018. Once that’s in place, the partnership will become official.

“Trust is a big part of what we’re all walking into,” Maloof said of the new partnership.

The board worked through the winter and into spring gathering community input before the vote, Hoover and Maloof said.

Organizers held five neighborhood dinners, hosted three information sessions, and provided written materials to the residents.

Residents also received the board and Trust’s MOU.

Maloof said the board wanted to draft an MOU that would meet residents’ needs for at least the next 30 years and a new generation of Westgate residents.

Early questions about the partnership included, “will my rent change?” and “will the Housing Trust tell us what to do?”

Hoover said the short answer to both those questions is, “no.”

WHI continues to make management decisions, he added. Westgate still controls who it hires as principal staff — like Hoover’s position as community director — and which property manager it hires.

Westgate works with Stewart Property Management, which specializes in managing affordable-housing communities in New England.

Maloof added that bringing the Housing Trust on board in a more formal partnership feels natural. The organization was involved with Westgate early on. The Trust has held a board seat and owns the land the Westgate units stand on.

“They’ve always been supportive,” Maloof said.

This partnership takes that support to a new level, she added.

Maloof understands some residents’ initial concern about the Trust “taking over.”

They’re worried about a power imbalance, she said.

It takes most new residents some time to understand that they have ownership of Westgate and what they say, feel, or think “really does matter,” Maloof said.

Many residents come to Westgate after living in situations or at properties where they have no control over their housing.

It’s a shift moving to a resident-owned housing development, she said. “Giving a voice to people who aren’t used to being able to speak up.”

“There’s no moneybags landlord,” Hoover said. “We operate on a tight margin.”

Hoover said he’s happy with the residents’ efforts at Westgate. The board is strong and seeks to attract the most aspirational people it can. Some days the work is easy, and some days it’s hard, Hoover said, and that’s okay.

“I’m happy, but also one of the aspirational people,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #357 (Wednesday, May 18, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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