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Painters put the finishing touches on the walls of one of the 23 new apartments in the Snow Block in Brattleboro.

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‘Every apartment is an opportunity’

Windham & Windsor Housing Trust holds open house for Snow Block, a new structure that will cultivate community in Brattleboro with 23 units for tenants of different ages with a variety of income levels

BRATTLEBORO—The scent of fresh paint and drywall dust filled the stairwell to the second floor of the Snow Block, the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust’s latest housing project and the newest housing on Flat Street.

As contractors in hardhats paint one of the building’s apartments, community members attending the Oct. 29 open house wandered through the nearly completed apartments on the second floor.

The five-story, wood structure with a brick façade will provide 23 units of housing for tenants at a variety of income levels who will move in Nov. 18. The apartments, located at 29 Flat St., will range from studios to two-bedroom units.

The housing trust has also partnered with Youth Services to include four apartments designed to serve tenants from age 16 to 24 who are renting for the first time.

Visitors attending the open house stopped to shake Elizabeth Bridgewater’s hand. The WWHT’s executive director paused to take in the nearly complete apartments. Floors three through five are done, she said.

“A beautiful living space is part of having dignity,” said Bridgewater. “Everybody should feel proud of where they live.”

Bridgewater said that the members of the project team behind the Snow Block designed the apartments with nice finishes, pleasing flooring, and rich colors because they believe that people at all income levels deserve a space that is both functional and beautiful.

“Affordable housing, at its core, is a healthy home,” she said.

According to Bridgewater, the project was designed to provide smaller, lower-cost apartments for people who want to live downtown.

The Snow Block will provide housing options for community members living with a variety of income levels, with some apartment income limits set at $55,188 for a single person or $63,072 for a two-person household. Other apartments will be paired with a rental voucher, making those units more affordable for people with modest incomes.

Four of the building’s apartments will house young people renting for the first time and will connect those young people to supportive services.

These apartments will “literally be a foundation beneath their feet,” said Bridgewater.

The organization is excited to contribute to the revitalization of Flat Street, she said, adding that staff have spoken with the nearby businesses about how they can engage the building’s future residents.

In Bridgewater’s opinion, the Snow Block is not just about creating apartments. The housing trust hopes to foster a community — which, in turn, creates a neighborhood, she said.

Funding in many forms

Over and over, the process of developing the Snow Block has served as an example of how local organizations can partner with one another, from the multiple sources of project funding to the constellation of agencies providing support services.

According to a press release from the Housing Trust, funding totaling over $7 million from numerous sources was raised to cover the total development costs. Almost $5 million came through housing tax credits administered by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) and purchased by People’s United Bank.

Funding for the project includes monies from the state’s Housing for All Revenue Bond (HRB), which was passed into law in 2017. The Vermont Housing & Conservation Board committed $1.538 million in proceeds from HRB to the development, as well as $490,000 in federal HOME Program funds, and $292,178 in federal National Housing Trust funds.

Additional funders include NeighborWorks America, Efficiency Vermont, and the Windham Regional Commission.

The most obvious support-services partnership is with Youth Services, but other alliances, though harder to see, remain vital to the project’s success.

One example: Christine Hart, the former executive director of Brattleboro Housing Partnerships and now director of development for the nonprofit, helped acquire housing vouchers for some of the apartments in the Snow Block.

Bridgewater also thanked the numerous state, federal, and individual donors who have made the building possible.

Block named for longtime executive director

The Snow Block takes its name from the Housing Trust’s former executive director, Connie Snow, who “retired” two years ago.

Snow is currently consulting on a housing project in Vergennes.

“It’s been the privilege of my life to do this work,” Snow said as she watched visitors cram into the community room on the eponymous building’s first floor.

One of the Snow Block’s strengths as a project, she said, is that it contains a variety of housing types — for example, some of the apartments come with supportive services or come with restrictions on income. As a result, the building will house a mixture of residents with different ages, from different backgrounds, and with different income levels.

“Every apartment is an opportunity,” she said.

The Snow Block also contains a few of what Snow called “micro apartments,” which, like efficiencies, include a bathroom, kitchen, and living space.

These are “really awesome” because they’re affordably priced, she said.

“There’s a real role for these types of apartments,” she said.

At the open house, Vermont’s federal delegation recognized Snow for her years with the Housing Trust.

U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch each wrote Snow a thank-you letter. All three letters were presented together in a frame.

Young partners

Youth Services and the Housing Trust have partnered to provide four apartments for young people in the Snow Block. Two of the apartments will have housing vouchers attached to them; the other two won’t, but they will still have income eligibility requirements.

The building will also provide meeting space for Youth Services programs, such as a weekly drop-in dinner planned for the building’s community room.

“Elizabeth [Bridgewater] gets young people,” said Russell Bradbury-Carlin, executive director of Youth Services.

According to Bradbury-Carlin, young renters can have a hard time finding housing because, compared to older adults, they lack a rental and payment history.

Many young people also have different needs, he added. Many teens and young adults who have had negative experiences within their families or the community have come to distrust adults and community services, he said.

It can be harder to engage with these young people as a result, he said — building trust takes time.

Bradbury-Carlin said the collaboration with the Housing Trust will prove helpful to clients because it will help place them within a supportive community.

Christine Linn, director of youth development, said many housing programs aimed at young people are often adapted from adult programs. Young tenants on their own also tend to have life experiences that lead people to treat them like adults.

But developmentally, such tenants are still young people and need more intensive case management, Linn said.

And Youth Services is engaging with the project in another way: Its youth-led screen printing business, Demographix, has designed tote bags for the Snow Block residents. The product features an image of the new building.

Brick, wood, and energy efficiency

The project’s design and development team include Stevens & Associates, PC, of Brattleboro; John F. Penney Consulting Services, of Chester; Dubois & King, Inc., a regional firm with multiple offices in the Northeast; Eco Houses of Vermont, LLC, of Jericho; and JD Kantor of Montpelier.

ReArch Company of South Burlington has overseen construction management services for the project.

Bob Stevens, founder and president of Stevens & Associates, described the project as exciting and “technically complicated.”

The building itself is a wood-frame structure, he said — a good financial strategy because wood is one of the least expensive building materials.

To match the streetscape of Flat Street, the building has a brick façade. But that presented an engineering and architectural challenge: wood shrinks and brick doesn’t, Stevens said.

The goal to keep the building energy efficient also presented a few challenges.

Whenever a project includes a “super-insulated envelope” — the physical threshold that separates conditioned indoor space from the elements outdoors — it must also maintain good air quality and ventilation, he said. The project team also scrutinized how the brick was hung on the wood frame to ensure it has the proper insulation gap.

The developers also considered the potential for future flooding. While the Snow Block is not technically in the Whetstone Brook’s flood plain, Flat Street was hit hard by flooding during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Bridgewater said the project team incorporated many of the flood mitigation techniques and flood gates that protected the New England Youth Theatre in 2011, also located on Flat Street.

The ‘ache for home’

Bridgewater said most of the building is leased out, but she encouraged people to contact the Housing Trust, because not all residents who start the leasing process follow through.

In the packed future community room, different officials spoke about their excitement about the Snow Block’s opening.

Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, a Democrat who represents Windham County, has highlighted affordable housing as a fundamental need in Vermont.

At the open house, Balint summed up the role of home as a place to feel physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe.

Balint quoted poet and activist Maya Angelou: “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #535 (Wednesday, November 6, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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