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The view out the back window of an apartment at Red Clover Commons.

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The homes that resilience built

Red Clover Commons rose from the mud of Irene, and it’s only the first phase of the Brattleboro Housing Partnership

BRATTLEBORO—Aug. 29, 2011. The day after Tropical Storm Irene’s floodwaters swamped Melrose Terrace, an affordable housing complex in West Brattleboro.

The Whetstone Brook’s flood-angered waters affected all 80 residents and flooded 40 apartments. Five buildings were severely damaged.

When the brook subsided, what had been a green haven for the low-income elderly and disabled adults living at Melrose was a muddy poster child for disaster.

May 25, 2017. The 55-unit Red Clover Commons now stands as the poster child for resiliency.

And it’s the crowd of residents, guests, Brattleboro Housing Partnership staff, state officials, and investors touring the two-and-three-quarters-story building after the May 25 ribbon-cutting ceremony that represent the hard work that came in between.

Guests attending the ribbon-cutting scuttled through Red Clover’s main doors shaking raindrops off their clothes and umbrellas.

Lena Fraga, the first Melrose resident to take the leap of faith and move into Red Clover, greeted people.

Fraga had looked forward to the move. Last November, in an interview with The Commons, Fraga said of Melrose, “I love it here.”

When asked if she felt sad to be leaving, Fraga laughed.

“No,” she said. “I love change. I’ve never lived in a place where nobody [else has] lived.”

Six months later, she laughed when asked if she still likes the new building.

“Yes, I love it!” Fraga said.

Still?

“Yes.”

Teamwork made it happen

The Brattleboro Housing Partnership and Housing Vermont spearheaded the $16 million project. The building, however, represents a patchwork of state, federal, and private funding. The list of those who helped was long and audience members shifted their weight from foot-to-foot during opening remarks.

After the official ribbon-cutting — done under the eaves to avoid the pouring rain — audience members broke into groups to tour the building.

Each floor has a color scheme and photo theme to help residents navigate the building. Outside each apartment is a place to charge a scooter. The apartments are designed with elderly tenants in mind.

Considerations like heavy insulation and a geo-thermal heating system have helped reduce the per-unit energy cost to $20 a month — a measure that could keep rents low and more affordable for tenants in the long term.

SASH Coordinator Christine Hazzard leads a tour group. She notes that some residents with mobility issues have benefited from Red Clover’s indoor environment.

It’s an easier walk to visit friends than it was walking outside on the uneven ground at Melrose, Hazzard said. Some residents have started a walking group.

The BHP and Melrose weren’t the only entities changed by Irene.

Learning from disaster

In 2011, then-Gov. Peter Shumlin pledged to bring the state back stronger and more resilient.

From coffee shops to Selectboard meetings to discussions with mental health professionals, people talked about life before and after Irene as two distinct experiences. Adjusting to post-Irene Vermont became a process of accepting a new normal.

Irene prompted new state policies around storm water management. Municipalities installed road infrastructure that could better handle larger water flows like bigger culverts and wider bridge spans. Towns also worked with the federal government to purchase properties that could be damaged by future flooding.

In Red Clover’s common room, BHP Executive Director Christine Hart sat and kicked off her high-heeled dress shoes. As she did, she laughed and said she had left her comfortable shoes in the car — on the other side of a rain-soaked parking lot.

Hart clearly remembers the promise she made after Irene: that the Melrose tenants would never need to fear flooding again.

She worked with the town, state, and federal officials to allow Melrose residents to return to the complex — built in 1965, well before the era of Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps — until the BHP could develop “new, safe, affordable housing.”

Three years later, Red Clover Commons has replaced a derelict lot on Old Fairground Road. The building has less green space than Melrose but is also closer to amenities like a grocery store and pharmacy.

Most importantly for Hart, the property sits outside any flood zone.

“[Red Clover] is a building, but the spirit and the life of the building is because of the residents, and the building has a great spirit,” Hart said.

Making it nice

The No. 1 piece of feedback about Red Clover?

It’s beautiful. It doesn’t look like public housing.

When asked why people in public housing can’t live in beautiful environments, Hart said, “Yes, they can.”

But, she continued, traditionally, that hasn’t been the case.

In Hart’s opinion, Vermont has a strong housing trust and public housing movement.

“This project is really a testament to the state of Vermont at the end of the day and the federal agencies that operate here,” she said. “But it’s the Vermont roots that made this.”

Hart believes that within five or 10 years, more of Vermont’s public housing will look similar to Red Clover.

“It’s about the low-income people you’re serving,” she said. Systems can be what they are, she said. But in Hart’s mind, everything comes down to the residents.

“Unfortunately, public housing gets bogged down in the federal system and that’s how we end up without the resources we need, without the ability to do [a] project,” Hart said.

The celebration of completing Red Clover will be short-lived for Hart, who is already working on Phase 2 of rehousing the remaining Melrose tenants while coordinating a federal buy-out of the Melrose property.

Twenty-five people still live at Melrose Terrace. Phase 2 includes building a second property to house them.

Hart said the BHP has its eye on a site.

The second building will probably be a “more straightforward” project and “more utilitarian” than Red Clover, she said.

Once the remaining 25 residents are safely moved to the Phase 2 building, Melrose Terrace will close forever.

Hart is in the process of negotiating a $3.2 million federal buyout with FEMA.

If approved, Hart said the buildings at Melrose will be torn down. Contractors will then widen and lower the Whetstone Brook, which borders the property. This will create more of a flood plain or, in planning-speak, “flood storage,” Hart said.

This should help West Brattleboro and even downtown Brattleboro if another Irene hits by giving the water a place to spread out and slow down, she added.

It will be Melrose Terrace’s new way of serving the community, she said — “its new legacy.”

Probably every story of Red Clover Commons and its future sister complex will start with the story of Irene.

Yet Irene also wove into the fabric of Vermont’s state policies, affordable housing community, road construction, and municipal planning a new awareness of the state’s rivers and how to survive the next natural disaster.

And Hart says she hopes that housing projects after Red Clover will benefit from this legacy of resilience.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #413 (Wednesday, June 21, 2017).

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