BRATTLEBORO—By this fall, the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust expects to begin construction on a new, 23-unit apartment building on Flat Street, next to the Boys & Girls Club.
This is the first time in nearly a century downtown Brattleboro has seen a completely new structure dedicated almost exclusively to living space.
Although the first floor will have space for offices, a community room, and a retail shop, the building is primarily residential. The building will house eight studio apartments, six efficiencies, six one-bedrooms, and three two-bedroom units.
Its design fits in with downtown’s architectural vernacular, including some of the buildings closest to The Snow Building, such as the Barber Building and the Latchis block. It will have a historical feel, giving it a “sense of place.” The design features a red brick veneer, a band and cornice, and cast stone sills and lintels above and below the windows.
The structure is named “The Snow Building,” in honor of Connie Snow, former executive director of the housing trust, who retired in December after 30 years with the organization.
Filling a need
The new executive director, Elizabeth Bridgewater, told The Commons one major factor behind the decision to place a new apartment house in Brattleboro is what she called “the tremendous need.”
“There’s virtually no vacancy here. There’s very little movement in the housing market,” said Bridgewater, especially for rental units.
Some figures show Brattleboro’s vacancy rate — the percentage of unoccupied rental units — at less than 1 percent. Industry standards say a healthy vacancy rate is 5 percent.
Bridgewater said the Trust periodically looks at available and feasible sites in Windham and Windsor counties for future development of affordable housing. For siting The Snow Building — and for the architectural and design plans — the housing trust is working with Brattleboro’s Stevens & Associates.
The Flat Street site, currently a 0.13-acre vacant lot, is an appropriate choice for the project, said Peter Paggi, the housing trust’s director of housing development.
Because a multi-unit apartment building is generally more cost-effective for the housing trust, a town’s zoning has to allow for that type of use.
“Downtown is very attractive because there’s no maximum density requirement,” Paggi said. For example, a site on South Main Street wouldn’t work for a 23-unit apartment building.
Having access to municipal water and sewer are also considerations, Bridgewater said.
“The infrastructure needs to be in place,” she said.
Otherwise, having to test and drill for a well, and site a septic system, or build a lengthy connection to a city system, would add a great deal of cost to a project — especially one that’s designed to offer affordable housing.
Bridgewater pointed out that the Trust’s mission goes beyond helping people find affordable, well-maintained housing. “We’re also dedicated to improving streetscapes and neighborhoods,” she said, “and Flat Street could use some improvements."
Putting a residential building on a block that currently has no housing will give the street “greater visibility in the evening,” she said.
Paggi told The Commons the project is now in the architectural design phase.
This summer the housing trust will close on the sale of the property — currently, a vacant lot — and by the end of the summer, or in the early fall, construction will begin. The plan, Paggi said, is to complete construction by the summer of 2019.
During the project’s Development Review Board hearing in March, Boys & Girls Club Executive Director Ricky Davidson expressed concerns with storm water runoff.
During heavy rains, Flat Street often floods, and, Davidson noted, a lot of that water ends up in the club’s basement.
Will The Snow Building add to the street’s — and the club’s — water woes?
“It’s a requirement for this building to not add to the runoff,” said Paggi, and the designs were engineered to support that. By utilizing roof drains, area drains that tie into the town’s storm drains, and pervious patio pavers, it should not make flooding worse, he said.
The design includes elements that will mitigate flooding in the structure, as well.
There is no basement, the floor on the first level is raised up “to give us a little more breathing room” in a flood event, said Paggi, and workers will install manual floodgates at all of the building’s entrances.
He noted the bottom of the windows on the first floor are about two feet off the ground to add more protection during a Tropical Storm Irene-like flood.
Paggi noted the housing trust is working with the town and the Boys & Girls Club on the issue.
Brattleboro Department of Public Works Director Steve Barrett told The Commons, “We will be repairing some drainage piping on Flat Street near the Boys & Girls Club” this summer, which will include rerouting some storm water piping away from the club.
“The Windham & Windsor Housing Trust makes buildings as environmentally friendly as possible,” Paggi said.
The Snow Building is a certified “Passive House,” which means it meets criteria for efficiency, including ultra-low energy usage for heating and cooling.
“The construction type is airtight, with active ventilation,” said Paggi, which means the air exchange, unlike many older, drafty homes, is carefully controlled. In this project, for example, the air venting out goes through a heat recovery system that heats the air coming in.
This stabilizes the home’s temperature, Paggi said, which leads to more tenant comfort and lower heating costs.
“For seniors especially, this is a plus,” he noted.
By keeping the “heating load very small, it helps keep the apartments affordable,” Paggi said. It is also the right thing to do for global sustainability, he added.
The systems for central air and hot water are operated by electric heat pumps, which will go on the building’s roof.
“No fossil fuels,” Paggi said. The building will also have a solar photovoltaic array on the roof, but it isn’t large enough to make the structure net-zero, he noted.
The building will get either a built-in generator or a transfer switch for a portable generator for power outages, said Paggi.
But even without a back-up, he said, there’s enough thermal mass — insulation — “to keep it comfortable on a cold day,” with a temperature loss of only about four or five degrees.
Making housing affordable
“All funding for the project is committed,” Paggi said, noting that 69 percent of the $6.9 million project’s cost comes through low-income housing tax credits.
Other funding partners include the Windham Regional Commission’s Windham County Renewable Energy Program, and Efficiency Vermont.
Another source of the project’s funding comes from Vermont Gov. Phil Scott’s Housing Revenue Bond, which increases the income requirement to people earning 120 percent of the median income for the area.
That’s higher than the housing trust’s typical maximum income requirement, and is designed to assist individuals who earn more money than their low-income neighbors but may still struggle with market-rate rents.
“It’s a real mixed-income development,” Paggi said.
Rent at The Snow Building will vary depending on whether a person qualifies for one of the five apartments supported by the governor’s bond program. Monthly rents will range from $440 for a studio apartment to $700 for a one-bedroom, and heat and hot water are included in all units.
Operating efficiencies help the housing trust keep their rents low, Bridgewater said, and this is necessary right now, considering the lack of subsidies available statewide and on a national level.
“No affordable housing can rely on subsidies anymore,” she said. “You have to plan differently because of scarce resources.”
This scarcity affects the availability of up-front assistance to a builder, and it also hinders low-income residents’ ability to get assistance with housing costs. Vouchers, for example, are in short-supply.
But, Bridgewater said, “by having some creativity in operations costs,” the housing trust and other partners, such as Efficiency Vermont, “can come together to help the community.”
Adding to downtown’s housing stock — especially a building with an elevator — will benefit a wide range of residents, Bridgewater said.
Downtown living, she said, is attractive to elders looking to downsize from their homes, people of all ages without cars, and young people who can walk to the movies, restaurants, and bars, “and can get home safely.”
“It fits in with our vision to have a home centrally located so people can have a rich and full life, with conveniences, and without a car,” she added.
Housing homeless youth
Another segment of the population served by this project is homeless youth. The housing trust is collaborating with Youth Services to set aside four apartments for people who are clients of the organization.
“We’re really excited. The need is there,” Bridgewater said.
She explained that under the statewide Coordinated Entry program, which houses individuals with the most need, people are prioritized according to the longevity of their homelessness and their “actual homelessness.”
Young people, because of their age, are typically homeless for a shorter length of time than older homeless people. And because they sometimes have the option of “couch-surfing” or temporarily staying with a relative, this puts them at a disadvantage for receiving assistance to find a home.
“This group is falling through the cracks in established programs,” Bridgewater said. By offering at-risk youth a home with a rental subsidy, and continued support from Youth Services, “we’re helping interrupt the trajectory, and we’re helping someone take a different path,” she said. “This may really change young peoples’ lives.”