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‘A freaking shame’

Former Melrose tenant laments the loss of a close-knit community

BRATTLEBORO—“It’s a freaking shame to me those houses can’t be used,” former Melrose Terrace resident Laura Austan told The Commons. “Those are really nice apartments.”

The Brattleboro Housing Partnerships, which manages Melrose Terrace and other public housing complexes in town, recently met with the Brattleboro Selectboard to discuss plans to demolish the vacant homes there.

The BHP plans to move the remaining residents out of Melrose after about three years and tear down those homes, too. The complex lies in an area prone to flooding, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development deems it unfit to house people.

Austan, a longtime Brattleboro resident, moved into Melrose in April of 2011. The first-floor homes at Melrose appealed to her, since medical challenges limit her mobility.

She moved there from the Brooks House, two weeks before it burned. After she dodged that proverbial bullet, that August, the BHP evacuated Austan from her home because Tropical Storm Irene was on its way.

The housing development, built in 1964, had a history of flooding, beginning six months after it was built.

“They were right on top of it,” Austan said of the BHP’s plan for evacuating residents. “They got us out of there even before it started raining,” she noted.

Water entered Austan’s apartment, but she said some residents had it worse. “They got a few feet of muck. They lost everything,” she said.

Unlike some of her neighbors, Austan was able to move back after a few months, but she knew it wouldn’t be for long.

In October 2016, the BHP found her an apartment in Hayes Court, partly because they were clearing out Melrose, and partly because Austan’s condition required her to live in a wheelchair-accessible home.

Although Austan likes her new home, she misses the structure of the Melrose homes and the privacy they allowed. “It’s like having a small house of your own,” she said. Her unit was a duplex, and she shared a hallway and porch with one neighbor.

Austan also had her own little front yard. “I miss my garden. I had a hyacinth there that grew two feet wide. You’d open the window and you could smell it,” she said.

“Those buildings were so nice and well-built,” she said.

But, Austan pointed out, siting a public housing complex in a flood plain was probably no mistake.

“Poor folk always live in the low areas. Real-estate values are always low in low-lying areas,” she said, and added, “that’s how it is in a capitalist country. It’s sad, but that’s the way it is.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #454 (Wednesday, April 11, 2018). This story appeared on page A3.

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