BRATTLEBORO—It was 1986, and in Vermont the winds of social justice were blowing warm and strong.
One of the things people were talking about was the need for affordable housing. In an overheated real estate market, investors were buying buildings but either flipping them or letting them fall into disrepair. Low-income people were finding it difficult to keep a roof over their heads.
The Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, devoted to preserving Vermont land as well as its built environment, was founded in 1987. According to its executive director, Gus Seelig, since the Board’s founding, the state of Vermont has invested in 12,500 homes and apartments through 10 regional nonprofits (six consider themselves to be community land trusts) and two statewide nonprofits.
The Brattleboro Area Community Land Trust — now the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust — was founded in the same year.
Formed in 1987, it grew from a small nonprofit intent on rescuing a few decrepit houses on Clark and Canal streets in Brattleboro to expanding into nearly every corner of Windham County and southern Windsor County.
It has been the developer of last resort for some of the toughest, largest, and most meaningful projects of the past few decades.
It saved the Wilder Block on Brattleboro’s Main Street after the building burned.
It teamed with the Brattleboro Food Co-op to create the first new downtown building in Brattleboro in a generation — crafting a brilliant mix of retail space and apartments in the process.
Connie Snow was the organization’s first executive director — part-time at first, and full-time the next year. Both Snow and the Trust are celebrating their 30th anniversary this year, and Snow will retire Dec. 31.
Seelig is a big fan of Snow and the Trust. In 2008, he nominated the Trust for the James Leach National Achievement Award for Most Outstanding Rural Nonprofit, an award given by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
“And they won,” Seelig said. “Connie has tenacity and heart and great skills. She built this incredible — and incredibly effective — organization that serves her community as well as any I have seen. She has met every challenge with grace and conviction and with effective solutions. Clark/Canal is now a little solar city, for example.
“She’s worked on serving the most hard-to-house folks. She’s built a tremendous board with great community connections. She does significant fund raising. They have spread their wings across Windham and Windsor counties.”
In 2012 the Co-op development won the National Award for Smart Growth Achievement from the Environmental Protection Agency. It also won the 2015 AIA/HUD Secretary’s Housing and Community Design Award for Creating Community Connection. Also in 2015, for the Algiers Village Housing, the Housing Trust won the Phoenix Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Redevelopment of a Brownfield. Snow has won two individual awards as well: the inaugural Arthur Gibb Award for individual leadership from the Vermont Forum on Sprawl in 2006, and the 2015 Mollie Beattie Award for statewide leadership in housing and conservation from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.
Inspired by faith
Snow came to the Trust in a haphazard manner. She was born in Washington, D.C. and educated at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., where a class in Liberation Theology made a huge impression.
“It was the Jesuits saying you don’t have to wait for pie in the sky when you die; you deserve a basic living here on earth,” she said. “I took that course and said, ‘OK, I’m going to see what I can do. I want to do good and bring some sort of social justice.’”
After college Snow took a job in California through the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. She was the only Anglo on the staff of a Hispanic affordable housing nonprofit.
“This was a combination of social justice work, real estate and construction,” she said. “The idea of development, where you see buildings go up or get renovated, is really exciting. I took to the development aspect as well as to the mission.”
When she came back East she worked for a nonprofit affordable housing developer, started a land trust for the Keene Housing Authority, and was briefly a mortgage loan officer at a bank — they told her she didn’t have the right shoes for the job.
But Snow’s eyes were on Brattleboro, and when she heard there was a group there talking about a land trust, she joined them.
“We incorporated in August of 1987 and in January 1988 we got the first bit of money, $7,000, from the VHCB,” Snow said. “We asked them for a million and they gave us $7,000 and said, ‘You keep working on it.’ But with that $7,000 they hired me. That was enough. I said, ‘OK, I don’t need that much job security.’”
She went full-time six months later.
Things were so rough in the early years that sometimes board members would hang out by the hot dog stand or at the tennis courts and try to drum up contributions to help meet the payroll.
Restoring a ‘slum’
The three Clark and Canal Street buildings were decrepit and the word “slum” was frequently used to describe their neighborhood. The Trust bought them in December 1987 and started rehabbing.
Since then, the organization has created or preserved a remarkable 890 homes and apartments. It breaks down to about 717 apartments, 40 mobile home lots, 133 shared equity homes, and about 15 commercial rentals.
It has also been through a few name changes. What started as the Brattleboro Area Community Land Trust in 1988 became the Windham Housing Trust in 2007, and then, in 2011, when it expanded into Windsor County, it became the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.
The Trust’s most recent large project is turning a disreputable old motel on Putney Road in Brattleboro, The Lamplighter, into small affordable apartments with services for the homeless. Now under construction, Great River Terrace will offer 22 units.
“These are fully-contained micro apartments,” Snow said. “They each have a full kitchen, a separate bathroom and one room that serves as a combined living/bedroom. They’re 350-square-feet.
“HUD has a very specific definition of homeless. If you’re couch surfing, you’re not considered homeless. So 11 are for bona fide HUD-defined homeless. Either they’re in a shelter or being supported by the state in motels, or they might be coming out of an institution. For the other 11, we have flexibility and there might be a range of people who need services.”
Through the years, there often has been grumbling from the commercial real estate world that the Trust, using taxpayer money, offers unfair competition. According to Snow, the complaints run in cycles.
“When the market is a little bit soft you hear more of the unfair advantage argument,” Snow said. “By and large, we’ve provided decent and safe housing for the lowest income people. Most of the time, when apartments are full, landlords don’t care what we do.”
The U.S. is in an era of “shrinking government.” Does the current political climate worry Snow? Yes and no. She is worried, but she also sees bipartisan support for the programs that fund the Trust’s work.
“Across the country, legislators, mayors, and governors see what this work does in cities and rural communities,” Snow said. “This kind of community development work, building homes, eliminating blight, creating construction jobs? They are seeing this money at work.
“People who have affordable homes can go to work every day. They can get jobs because of the stability that housing gives to people. It impacts the entire fabric of our communities.”
For example, in the normal course of events after the Wilder Block in Brattleboro burned, the wrecking ball would have come in.
“The building across the street (the former Barrows building) used to be a four-story building, but it burned down and now you’ve got a little one-story building,” Snow said. “It’s a loss for the integrity of our Main Street. We were able to acquire the Wilder Block, create a home for River Gallery Art School and create eight affordable apartments. People love living in that building. I don’t think people ever leave. This kind of community development work has a lot of support, but there is still real reason to be worried about future funding.”
Much more work needs to be done.
“We’re still a long way from meeting the need,” Snow said. “People sometimes say, ‘How much is enough?‘ You can approach this problem from a couple of angles. You can raise the minimum wage and then people will be able to afford market-rate housing. Or you keep subsidizing housing. If you don’t do one or the other, you leave vast numbers of people behind. So we’re going to keep chipping away at the problem.”
It has been a long, challenging, rewarding, and productive 30 years for the Trust — and for Snow.
“I was motivated to do this work because of a commitment to social justice and a desire to level the playing field to whatever degree I could,” Snow said. “But I stayed in this work largely due to the inspiration I drew from our residents, many of whom navigate tremendous challenges with few resources — like the pregnant girl living in the van, or the woman cleaning in a local hotel in exchange for a room without cooking facilities, or the man living with a developmental disability getting his first apartment on his own, or the immigrant single mother and her child adapting to a new environment.
“And then you see the impact of a simple thing like an apartment that is theirs, that they can afford, and you see that it isn’t just an apartment, it represents opportunity and dignity and hope. That’s why I’ve stayed.”
When Snow retires, Elizabeth Bridgewater, the Trust’s current Director of Homeownership, has been appointed by the board to take her place.
“Elizabeth is a talented and dedicated professional — our organization will be in great hands!” Snow says.