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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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The Winchester School House, seen here in a 1941 photo, served the town from the 1820s into the 1950s.

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Accidental homeowners face uphill challenge

Marlboro couple seeks to move 19th century building to higher — and drier — ground, a dilemma that sparks a larger conversation about young artists and their housing needs

Anyone who has fill for sale — or who can donate it to the cause — can contact Kreitzer at 802-689-4984 or jesse.kreitzer@gmail.com.

MARLBORO—Jesse Lockwood Kreitzer and Alina Kulpaviciute became homeowners by chance.

In June 2017, they started renting the renovated circa-1820 Winchester School House on Higley Hill in Marlboro. By October 2017, they decided to buy it.

“The decision was completely emotional,” Kreitzer admits.

For someone seeking a ski lodge or a second home, a purchase of property like the schoolhouse would be “pocket change,” Kreitzer said. But the situation felt different for the young artists.

“I felt very protective of this home,” he said. “We just went for it.”

The almost-200-year-old building has undergone interior renovations over the years to domesticate it and convert it from a one-room schoolhouse into a home.

But as it turns out, their home now requires relocating to higher ground.

Returning home

Kreitzer, a filmmaker and owner of the production company Lanterna, returned to the Marlboro area after 13 years. While taking a break from a project at his favorite swimming hole, he met Michael Newton, the son of the schoolhouse’s previous owner.

Newton, who lives in Washington state, had tried to rent the 700-square-foot schoolhouse as an AirBnB with unsatisfying results. Kreitzer said that he and Kulpaviciute took over renting the space on the assumption that they’d move out after the summer.

But as renters, the couple fell in love with the building, and when the opportunity arose to make it their home, Kreitzer said they decided to commit.

In their zeal, they “naïvely overlooked some big issues,” he said.

The building rests on approximately a half acre, with the surrounding 18 acres of land protected by the Vermont Land Trust, said Kreitzer.

At some point in its history, the schoolhouse sat level with the road; now, it sits approximately 8 feet below grade near a buckling retaining wall and a culvert that tends to overflow.

The excess water has left a “swimming pool under the crawl space” that is contributing to rot, said Kreitzer.

He said he and Kulpaviciute have taken measures such as installing a sump pump and redirecting the culvert to mitigate the water issues — moves that he sees as Band-Aids.

Eventually, the water will damage the building or the retaining wall will fail, he said.

Kreitzer has consulted with local contractors, who recommend building up the land and moving the schoolhouse 200 feet to higher ground.

Attracting artists to Vermont with quality housing

“In some ways, I believe in the power of storytelling,” said Kreitzer, who believes the schoolhouse has a story to tell that goes beyond its years as a tiny educational institution or its current use as a dwelling.

He believes that Vermont has an opportunity to transform its old farm buildings into live/work infrastructure to support young people working in the arts.

According to the most recent Americans for the Arts report, Arts & Economic Prosperity Study (AEP5), nonprofit arts and culture organizations represent a larger-than-$123-million industry in Vermont.

This sector supports approximately 4,268 full-time-equivalent jobs and generates more than $10 million to local and state governments.

A 2015 report prepared for the Vermont Arts Council stated that the creative economy contributes to 8.6 percent of the employment in the state. The report was compiled by FutureWorks, a research, policy, and consulting firm with offices in New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

Kreitzer thinks the creative economy could do even more for Vermont, especially media.

Along with education in cinema from Emerson College and the University of Iowa, he worked for several years in the low-residential masters of fine arts program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier.

Vermont will probably never have the ability to fund huge film incentive programs, Kreitzer said. But the state can offer other incentives, such as a high quality of life or inexpensive housing.

According to a 2018 article by The Hollywood Reporter, incentive programs range from the “small” side such as a $50 million tax incentive program in New Mexico to New York’s $420 million incentive program.

But for Vermont to draw more creatives and more young people, it needs to offer better infrastructure — or, as Kreitzer calls it, “connective tissue” — such as internet, cell service, and housing.

Lack of housing is often cited as a barrier to attracting more workers and young people.

Kreitzer believes Vermont can weatherize and renovate the state’s aging housing stock, specifically the old farmhouses, barns, and other outbuildings scattered across the state’s more rural towns.

Vermont lawmakers such as Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, have discussed the state’s housing shortage that affects households across a wide range of incomes.

The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University notes that while most people imagine homeowners as families with young children, more such families rent.

The organization reported this month that the United States is short approximately 2.6 million rental housing units suitable for low- and middle-income households.

“Despite the increased number of single-family rentals, officials and commentators have expressed concern that middle-income families are not able to find suitable rental housing at a price they can afford,” the report states. “For low-income households with children, finding an affordable, right-sized, and safe unit can be an even greater challenge.”

The report continues, “To attract middle-class families and provide opportunities to low-income families, cities and metropolitan regions must have a supply of adequate, affordable, and available rental housing of a size suitable for households with children.”

Looking for ‘the sweet spot’

Bob Stevens, president of Brattleboro-based design and engineering firm Stevens & Associates P.C., said housing in Vermont is a tough nut.

When it comes to rural communities, Stevens has seen information suggesting that baby boomers living in large farmhouses would prefer walkable neighborhoods. Most young people also want to live in walkable downtowns.

He said one problem in adapting buildings in such environments is keeping the costs low enough that the project costs permit contractors to build at a price point that is affordable to the people who would ultimately live there.

So what does that mean for Vermont’s rural towns? Stevens isn’t overly optimistic.

In his opinion, the “sweet spot” is to look for multi-family homes that can be renovated and upgraded. Many former mill towns along the Connecticut River, such as Holyoke or Easthampton in Massachusetts, have converted their former mills into housing.

These mill buildings or large farmhouses can have at least four units, the point where such projects start reaching an economy of scale, he said. Twenty or more units is better.

Barn conversions, on the other hand, can be tricky, because of buildings — “they shift and they shuck” — and the time and materials required to stabilize them.

A larger conversation

In the meantime, Kreitzer views the 1829 schoolhouse as a microcosm of a bigger conversation happening in Vermont, its creative economy, and attracting new residents.

Creatives need spaces where they can work, but also spaces where they can gather, he said. They need “hubs of sorts” that allow them to share work and “to challenge one another,” Kreitzer said.

But for now, his hub is in Marlboro, and he needs to move it to dry ground. And moving a building, even a relatively small one, requires money.

The couple is waiting to hear from the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust on approval of a loan.

But in the meantime, they are also hoping for community support to preserve a piece of town history.

Kreitzer and Kulpaviciute are also seeking 600 to 1,000 cubic yards of fill, either for purchase or by donation.

“Yes, this is personal,” he said. “Yes, this is my problem.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #506 (Wednesday, April 17, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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