BRATTLEBORO—The Windham Housing Trust (WHT) is about to become a much bigger entity, and get a new name in the process.
At its annual meeting last Thursday, WHT members unanimously voted to approve assuming stewardship over most of the properties of the Rockingham Area Community Land Trust (RACLT), and change the name of the newly-combined nonprofit organization to the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust on May 1.
Of the state’s nine community land trusts, Windham Housing Trust had the smallest territory, according to its executive director, Connie Snow.
With the acquisition of the RACLT properties, WHT’s housing portfolio will grow to 714 units in 32 towns.
“We’ve been thinking about this for 16 months, and obviously it became more and more real as we went along,” said Snow. “We wanted the membership to have the opportunity to weigh in and ask questions as we expand. It’s great that people seem happy about this and see this as a step forward for our long term sustainability.”
“A lot of work went into this,” said WHT Vice President Jeff Shumlin after Thursday’s meeting.
“We are building a sound foundation for the future, thanks to Connie’s leadership and the work of the rest of the staff,” Shumlin said. “We share the same mission [as RACLT], and we will make sure their residents have the same opportunities as our residents.”
On April 7, RACLT members voted to dissolve the organization at its annual meeting. The Springfield-based organization was founded in 1989. It owns and manages more than 500 housing units, including 357 rental apartments, in Bellows Falls, Westminster, Athens, and 17 other towns in Windham and Windsor counties.
Snow said the RACLT board approached the Windham Housing Trust with the merger proposal in January 2010. She said RACLT board members explained that it has become increasingly difficult to keep their organization going, and that the nonprofit found itself competing with WHT for an increasingly shrinking pool of state and federal grant money.
“It’s a small state, and we’re all competing for the same money,” Snow said in an interview last Friday. “But competition wasn’t the motivation. It was whether a slightly larger organization do more with the existing resources”
”Most of what we have done over the years is rehabilitation and improvement of existing housing stock,” she continued. “This gives us a better chance to continue that work.”
Another factor in pooling the resources of the organizations, Snow said, was to take advantage of RACLT’s participation in NeighborWorks, a Congressionally chartered affordable housing and community development program.
In the 1990s, RACLT was one of five organizations that received NeighborWorks charters, while WHT missed out on that opportunity. The consolidation of RACLT and WHT will preserve the charter for the new combined organization, Snow said.
This is important because more and more housing money is being funneled through NeighborWorks, Snow said, and having the charter will allow the new combined housing trust to better weather the ups and downs of the housing market.
WHT will take control of all RACLT’s commercial and residential properties, with the exception of four mobile home parks containing about 57 units.
Properties include the Exner and Howard blocks in Bellows Falls, Wall Street in Springfield, Chester Depot in Chester, and Old Windsor Village and Armory Square in Windsor.
A big difference between the two organizations, Snow said, is that the Windham Housing Trust has managed most of its properties, while RACLT has used a third-party manager to run most of its properties.
While WHT staff made the effort to contact all the residents of the RACLT properties, Snow said that “this transition is so seamless, it’s a little bit of a non-event. But we felt it was important to let them know that there was still going to be a local nonprofit that’s accountable and can be contacted if there are issues.”
“Rockingham has done some great development projects over the years,” said Snow.
Snow said the acquisition of RACLT’s assets should be finished by mid-May. RACLT will be winding down its operations by the end of May, she said, and RACLT’s current office at 90 Main St. in Springfield will become a satellite office for the new combined organization.
The current RACLT staff will be retained, and the new organization expects to hire four or five new staffers.
As for the mobile home parks, under state law, the tenants will have the first opportunity to buy the properties or form a co-op, Snow said.
Given the growth the Windham Housing Trust since it was founded in 1987 as the Brattleboro Area Community Land Trust, Snow said that this was an exciting time for her organization.
“We never could have imagined creating an organization like this when we started,” said Snow. “But this is a time where more and more nonprofits are looking at the idea of consolidation.”
“It’s not always the answer, and you don’t always save money, but you can accomplish other objectives,” she said. “In the end, these were two organizations who knew each other well and operated programs together. We have confidence this will mesh together.”