BRATTLEBORO—The gathering of staff and press in the community room at Melrose Terrace on July 9 was small, but the news was big: the Brattleboro Housing Partnerships is reorganizing its leadership.
Starting Jan 1, Christine Hart, its executive director of 23 years, will take on a new role as director of development, turning her focus to three property development projects for the nonprofit.
“These are big projects, and I want to get them right and I want to get them done,” Hart said.
Christine Hazzard, who arrived at the organization in 2012, will take the helm as the organization’s new executive director.
Hazzard has served as the BHP’s manager of the resident wellness and supportive services team. Prior to that, she served as program manager for Windham and Windsor counties of SASH (Support and Services at Home), a program that helps senior Vermonters age in place.
Big projects ahead
One of Hart’s upcoming projects is the decommissioning of Melrose Terrace in West Brattleboro, a project which includes the relocation of the remaining residents and the demolition of 11 buildings, four of which will come down this fall.
The major mitigation work would start next spring. Plans also involve restoring the flood-prone property to a community asset for the neighborhood, as well as a potential flood-overflow area.
To help mitigate floods, contractors will widen the Whetstone Brook by 2 to 3 feet and deepen the stream bed by 2 feet, explained Hart.
Hart said that the 5 acres of new landscaping will provide storm water storage. This “storage” will give flood waters a place to slow down and large debris such as propane tanks a place to settle.
As contractors work on the flood mitigation, they will create walking trails and more community space.
Hart said that she has worked with the West Brattleboro Association in some of the planning. The Brattleboro Planning Commission, according to Hart, is considering expanding the West Brattleboro village designation to include the Melrose property.
The Melrose property has the potential to become “a really active part of West Brattleboro,” said Hart.
The five buildings that will remain could serve as maker spaces or incubation spaces — just “anything but housing.”
She anticipates keeping the BHP offices at the Melrose site.
The $3.2 million in funding for this project comes from a FEMA pre-disaster mitigation award. Hart noted that the grant requires matching funds, and the BHP still has to raise $200,000 towards that match.
Red Clover expansion to accommodate Melrose residents
Hart will also oversee the construction of Red Clover Commons II, to be located next door to the current housing on Fairground Road. Once the remaining 25 households move into the new three-story, 18-unit building, Melrose Terrace will close.
Funding for this second project will come from the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board and a Vermont Community Development Award sponsored by the town of Brattleboro.
According to Hart, the work on Red Clover Commons II is on a three-year timeline. She anticipates gathering construction financing next summer. Construction would start in the fall of 2020, and she anticipates that the new building will open in January 2022.
Change in designation could leverage funding
Hart’s last major project will focus on converting the designation of four of the current public-housing properties from a public-housing subsidy mechanism to project-based housing vouchers.
These two designations come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and determine the type of federal funding that housing properties receive and how that funding can be used. They also determine what — if any — outside funding can be raised for projects.
Such new designation could give the BHP more latitude in redeveloping the agency’s properties, potentially allowing it to take out a mortgage under the project-based housing vouchers, Hart said.
According to Hart, such new flexibility will also enable the organization to create a master capital-improvement plan for Hayes Court, Moore Court, Ledgewood Heights, and the Samuel Elliot Apartments.
These properties were all built between 1972 and 1982, and Hart said none of them has received a big infusion of capital for long-term improvements since they were built.
Filling a need
Currently, the BHP owns and manages seven properties and 302 units.
Although public housing is often described as low-income families’ last resort, “We’re their first resort,” Hart said.
The BHP rents to people who often have problems renting from private landlords because they are financially risky or in recovery.
“We’re their first step in a journey that will hopefully end in home ownership or good renting,” she said.
The BHP is more than a landlord, Hart continued — it is also a social service agency. When people can’t pay their rent, the BHP asks “how can we help?” rather than going straight to lease enforcement.
She highlighted the strategy of the organization, whose programs focus on helping residents who struggle to pay rent, in helping tenants solve underlying problems and stabilize their lives. As a result, the organization’s rent collection rate has gone from 45 percent to 80 percent.
Hazzard added that the BHP staff spent time examining the why of late or unpaid rents. For example, staff identified that rents were often late during back-to-school time and holidays, so they have set up methods to support their tenants during those times.
BHP has also collaborated with other organizations such as the Vermont Foodbank to help stretch families’ budgets.
Hart said that Brattleboro needs more affordable housing, a need underscored by the times that people have waited two years for access to BHP rentals.
The organization has closed its waiting list for federally funded Section 8 housing vouchers because its wait for people participating in that program averages three years.
A smooth transition
Hart said she wouldn’t feel ready to hand the reins to a new leader unless she knew that the BHP would be in good hands.
“This is a vocation for me, not an occupation,” Hart said. “I was called to this.”
Hart complimented Hazzard’s combination of intelligence and people skills, a leader who has a good rapport with residents and has the trust and respect of her co-workers. She believes her successor will shepherd the BHP into its next phase.
In Hazzard’s seven-year tenure, she has helped develop support programs for residents, along with services for seniors through SASH, rent support, and financial self-sufficiency.
She has also developed a partnership with the Vermont Foodbank to include six monthly programs at BHP properties. She doubled the participation in SASH over two years. She helped relocate more than 50 residents from Melrose Terrace to Red Clover Commons.
Hazzard has also facilitated several wellness programs for residents including Managing Chronic Conditions, Tai Chi for Arthritis, and Diabetes Self-Management.
She also said that she looks forward to working with colleges on staff development and strengthening the residents’ advisory board.
Hazzard will also guide the BHP’s next strategic plan.
One of the “saddest parts of the transition” will be to hire her SASH replacement, she said, noting that that working with the elders in the program has provided her with some of her happiest experiences in her work with the BHP.
Between now and January, Hazzard said she planned to “soak up knowledge like a sponge” from Hart.
New board members needed
Board Chair Janet Cramer said that the housing commissioners decided to promote from within the organization.
As part of the selection process, the commissioners interviewed multiple staff members to get their feedback.
These staff members independently recommended Hazzard as Hart’s successor, Cramer said — an endorsement that she said was confirmed by the board’s later interviews.
Cramer said that the BHP wants to recruit two more board members. Interested candidates can reach out to any of the housing commissioners or apply to the board through the town’s website.