BRATTLEBORO—A $150,000 grant from TD Bank will help Windham & Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT) cope with myriad housing challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The money, says Executive Director Elizabeth Bridgewater, will support a collaboration between WWHT and Groundworks Collaborative, another social-services nonprofit, to provide housing and supportive services for residents living at The Chalet in West Brattleboro.
The Chalet follows the model of the Trust’s Great River Terrace, hailed as the first permanent supportive housing project in southern Vermont when it opened in 2018.
Bridgewater notes that at the start of the pandemic here, the housing market could not absorb the needs of as many people as found themselves needing shelter in such a short time.
“This initiative was primarily paid for through CARES Act funding, which funded the acquisition of the property and needed health and safety upgrades,” she says of the former Dalem’s Chalet motel and restaurant in West Brattleboro.
The TD Bank grant will go beyond bricks and mortar to help fund onsite staff and other expenses associated with providing services from a number of organizations to help residents who are reeling from a number of challenges that sabotage their abilities to find housing and keep it permanently.
The funding will help folks like Caleb Keegan.
Keegan, now 45, has spent his life since age 21 “dealing on and off with homelessness” after a challenging youth and young adulthood. He is grateful for his home at The Chalet and hopes brighter days lie ahead despite ongoing struggles.
“I may have a couple of beers a month — nothing like I used to,” says Keegan. “Here I am doing well, not spending money on cocaine or dope, but I’m still struggling.”
“I just want to move forward, but, yeah — all I can do is one day at a time and hope that something falls into place,” he said.
COVID magnifies the housing problem
Since the start of the pandemic, the homeless population has been among the most vulnerable with unreliable access to clean water — not to mention health care and sanitation.
Crowded shelters and tent living conditions discourage social distancing, effectively accelerating the virus’s spread, notes WWHT Outreach and Marketing Coordinator Marion Major.
She adds that Vermont officials implemented a motel voucher system for every resident without shelter early in the pandemic. CARES Act money was used to offer lower nightly rates and entire properties to house homeless folks.
In Brattleboro, the search for temporary shelter highlighted a need for more permanent, affordable housing. At the height of the pandemic, 151 people were housed in several local motels.
Today, Groundworks Collaborative continues to support more than 100 people living in such facilities.
Even for those who did have jobs and apartments, the going has been dicey. Findings from a study by the Housing Finance Policy Center of the Urban Institute reveal that nearly one-third of all renters belong to employment sectors most affected by the pandemic — food service, entertainment, and retail.
As cities and towns curtailed operation in the past year, these employees lost their primary sources of income and often the ability to pay rent.
By January, it was projected that nearly 12 million U.S. renters were expected to owe an average of almost $6,000 in late rent and utility payments.
As many as 34 million renters in the U.S. are considered at risk of losing their homes when eviction moratoriums and other protections expire. Without eventual payment, these folks face the prospect of eviction, yet many still have no viable income.
TD Bank, through the TD Charitable Foundation, says it focused its annual Housing for Everyone grant program on finding solutions for renters affected by COVID-19 to help make sure that once rent moratoriums expire, vulnerable people are not left without homes. The program provided nearly $5 million to 32 nonprofits in 15 states.
COVID-19 impacts and solutions
WWHT, one of the biggest providers of low- and moderate-income housing in the area, has dealt with a number of impacts during the pandemic.
These challenges ranged from “renters and homeowners losing income and not being able to pay their rent or mortgages and potential homebuyers being squeezed out of the market due to cash buyers from out-of-state wanting to resettle in Vermont, to significant increases in building materials, which affect project budgets,” Bridgewater said.
She adds the “lack of housing availability continues to be a big challenge, and with the influx of out-of-state buyers, the problem has been exacerbated.”
“Vacancy rates continue to hover around 2 percent and folks who need housing have a difficult time finding the right opportunity because the options are limited,” Bridgewater continues.
Despite the economic hardships brought on by COVID-19, WWHT undertook numerous initiatives in 2020 to address these issues.
The housing trust worked with advocates across the state to secure more than $30 million in CARES Act funding to address homelessness. Its property management team obtained rent relief funding and offers enhanced supportive services.
The WWHT Rehousing Recovery program also offers grants to private landlords to rehabilitate vacant and blighted apartments.
Bridgewater said the Housing Trust has been working to meet this challenge in a number of ways.
“The Chalet initiative is an example where we used CARES Act funding administered by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to purchase a property and transition its use from short-term rentals to long-term rentals to provide stable — albeit small — housing opportunities immediately,” she said.
This action resulted in 27 new permanent housing opportunities, with accompanying supportive services.
Another example is a program in collaboration with the Vermont Agency of Commerce & Community Development to incentivize private property owners to bring long-vacant apartment units back into use.
“Grants were provided to address health and safety issues, so these apartments were ready to rent,” Bridgewater says.
This ongoing initiative has resulted in 59 new housing opportunities since September, and Bridgewater says another 17 are expected to be completed this year, resulting in a total of 76 new rental opportunities.
“Finally, we continue advancing projects in our real estate development pipeline, which is a longer term strategy of creating long-term, permanently affordable homes,” she says.
Bridgewater says the Housing Trust is in the pre-construction stage on a project in Bellows Falls that will result in 27 new apartments and is in the feasibility stages on two additional projects that will result in approximately 45 new homes.
“We also continue to provide support to homebuyers navigating the process of obtaining a mortgage and searching for the right opportunity,” she said. “We provide education through online classes and one-on-one support from our homeownership specialists.”
Education and counseling programs are also working with foreclosure scenarios, and the housing trust launched its own initiative to scrutinize policies regarding social and racial equity.
How to help
“One timely way to support the Housing Trust’s ability to increase housing opportunities is for concerned folks to be vocal advocates for additional housing resources in the state budget,” Bridgewater says.
Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed budget includes “a number of initiatives” to support the increase in housing production and homeownership throughout the state, she notes.
Included in the governor’s budget are “funding for the continuation of the rental rehab program, which helped bring vacant units back online, funding to make it easier for Vermonters to buy and rehab homes, and increased funding for the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, which provides capital funding for the creation of new rental homes,” she says.
For more information, to make a donation, and to apply for housing assistance, visit firstname.lastname@example.org.