BRATTLEBORO—Five years of studies, meetings, and architectural designs culminated in an announcement last week that will send the 76 residents of Hayes Court in West Brattleboro looking for new homes.
Christine Hart, executive director of the Brattleboro Housing Authority (BHA), announced on May 24 the demolition and rebuilding plans at Hayes Court that will make way for a 36-unit Enhanced Living Facility.
The new Hayes Court will also stand as Brattleboro’s first designated Support And Services at Home (SASH) location.
The SASH program allows existing community organizations to unite under one umbrella to provide care to seniors and people with disabilities.
Hart told more than 20 residents last week that she and BHA staff wanted to announce this plan to them first, and that she didn’t want anyone to feel that the housing authority was pursuing actions in secret.
The decision comes after years of studies, research, and lengthy discussions with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and efforts by BHA staff and commissioners.
The BHA housing board and employees had reached a definitive decision the evening before to demolish all the Hayes Court buildings and rebuild, Hart told the residents.
The initial reactions of many of the residents reflected anger or worry.
“This is the best property you own,” said Hayes Court resident Rhonda Jepson. “This is horrible.”
Jepson, president of the Hayes Court Tenant Association, said she hates downtown Brattleboro, specifically because of the number of drug addicts.
Hart told residents that the BHA did attempt to save the property, as residents knew.
But the 1970s-era structures, some of which stand on a floodplain, could no longer pass muster with HUD and therefore would not receive extensive federal financing funds, Hart said.
Hart assured the residents that they can expect extensive planning and relocation services.
According to Hart, the BHA is committed to relocating all 76 residents to new housing that is equal to, or better than, what they have now. Also, she said, the BHA will cover all relocation-related costs.
Over the next 12 to 18 months, she said, staff will meet with residents individually to discuss their housing needs. Based on these interviews, staff will locate three possible dwellings from which residents can choose.
The current plan could change, but Hart warned residents that the likelihood of saving any Hayes Court buildings was “very, very slim.”
Hayes Court requires the “most extensive and most expensive renovations” of all the BHA properties, which is why the housing authority chose to demolish it, said Hart.
“The buildings have really reached the end of their useful life,” she said.
Over the five years spent studying different options for Hayes Court, Hart said the BHA received two planning grants totaling approximately $120,000. She anticipates the new building and relocation process to total approximately $8 million.
Hart said residents have two options for relocation.
The first option includes moving to another BHA property, such as Melrose Terrace or the Samuel Elliot Apartments.
The BHA owns and manages 284 apartments on five different properties. Melrose Terrace, Hayes Court, and the Samuel Elliot Apartments cater to seniors and people with disabilities. Ledgewood Heights and Moore Court serve families.
In addition, the BHA recently became part owner and manager of the Ann Wilder Richards building, which has commercial space and 21 apartments.
The second option for residents is to choose a Section 8 relocation voucher.
This voucher will allow each resident to move into a new place under a new housing provider at a rent comparable to that at Hayes Court.
According to Hart, with a voucher in hand, residents can relocate across town or across the country. The vouchers do not expire.
The BHA, said Hart, will apply for 72 relocation vouchers from the Boston HUD field office.
According to Hart, HUD closed its voucher list about two years ago. The relocation vouchers are “from a different pot” and can only be activated in times where a housing authority must relocate its residents.
She anticipates that resident interviews with BHA coordinators will commence this month and run throughout the summer.
The BHA has also hired the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust as the relocation contractor, Hart said.
The Windham & Windsor Housing Trust stepped in to help residents after events like the 2004 Wilder Block building fire.
“It made sense to tap into a local resource that was so good at doing that,” said Hart.
Hart advised residents to not move in anticipation of the demolition. HUD will not cover residents’ vouchers and moving costs until the BHA sends out a formal 90-day relocation letter.
“This is all very regulated by the federal government,” said Hart.
Choices in housing
If housing in Vermont and Brattleboro is lacking already, “where did the BHA think they would relocate the 76 residents?” Jepson asked.
David DeAngelis, BHA Section 8 administrator, tried to reassure Jepson and other residents that Brattleboro’s housing situation was not as tight as some people think.
DeAngelis helped relocate the 60 residents displaced by the Brooks House fire in April in about three weeks, said Hart.
DeAngelis said he works with multiple housing agencies, such as HUD, and about 60 to 75 different landlords of more than 200 subsidized apartments.
“When the time comes, I think the pool of apartments to draw from will be plentiful,” said DeAngelis.
In an odd twist of fate, Shawnna O’Connor was recently displaced by the Brooks House fire with her cat Juniper. She expressed fear about the transition.
O’Connor, who moved in only about a week and a half ago, said she thought the transition wouldn't happen for a long time. She asked why folks were allowed to move to Hayes Court when the facility is destined for demolition.
Hart told her that all the residents had been told of the BHA’s anticipated plans, but that now the Housing Authority has a real course of action for the property.
“We know this is significant [news],” Hart said.
She said the BHA will try to make the relocation as easy as it can for residents.
“If you really don’t like the high-rise [on Elliot Street], then we won’t offer you the high-rise,” Hart said.
Hart guessed that January 2012 would mark the earliest that the relocation letter could go out. Residents would start moving in the spring. It will take about a year to relocate all 76 residents.
“I understand this is tough and big information. We will do everything we can to make this as good a process for everyone as it can be,” Hart said.
According to the BHA’s relocation plan, staff estimate it will cost $138,927 to relocate everyone. This total includes expenses like moving, transferring utilities, counseling, and transportation.
The new three-story building will have a mixture of income sensitivity requirements. Twenty of the apartments will serve as public housing units, and 16 will benefit from some other form of subsidy, she said.
The new structure will have extensive service space, such as a large dining and activity room not only for residents, but also the entire Brattleboro community.
Jeanette White, special projects director for the BHA and senior Windham County state senator, said the need for changes at Hayes Court was so great that even if the need didn’t affect the current 76 residents now, it would affect residents within two to five years.
In White’s opinion, the new building will “provide something that is so desperately needed.”
End of a useful life
One reason, said Hart, that HUD will not fund improvements to the existing Hayes Court buildings is because the structures sit in a flood zone.
When the housing was constructed in the 1970s, HUD did not pay much attention to flood zones, but the federal agency will not permit the the BHA to make more than $300,000 worth of improvements over a five-year period to facilities built on a floodplain.
The Melrose Terrace buildings, also in the floodplain, could use new roofs, Hart said.
In addition, the current Hayes Court buildings have narrow hallways and do not have fire sprinklers. Most don’t have elevators and do not meet most requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, she said.
Hart added that she doesn’t view the money spent on studies and consultants over the past five years as wasted funds. Instead, she sees it as an investment in getting to the current Hayes Court plan.
“I’ve fought really hard to keep these buildings, but I had to relent,” said Hart.
According to Hart, HUD has encouraged rebuilding over renovation nationwide.
A few years ago, the federal agency undertook a capital improvements survey of all the housing authorities under its purview. The data revealed necessary renovations in the billions of dollars, said Hart.
Instead, over the last decade, HUD has urged housing authorities to rebuild and create mixed-income, nonprofit housing programs. This suggestion is one reason the future Hayes Court will have a mix of public housing and subsidized housing units.
Public housing is owned by a housing authority. Subsidized housing, may or may not be owned by a housing authority, but offers some form of financial assistance built into the rent for tenants who qualify for the programs.
The BHA’s Ann Wilder Richards building on Western Avenue reflects this mixed-income change as well. Although it still offers affordable, nonprofit housing, the assistance programs it offers are different from those attached to Hayes Court's public housing programs, said Hart.
She said the Rutland Housing Authority is midway through a similar demolition and rebuild of its Forest Park Property. The Rutland Housing Authority has temporarily moved 36 of the 72 families into local apartments, demolished those empty buildings at Forest Park, and constructed “nice housing in its place.”
“We feel like this is a project we can do and manage,” Hart said.
She said, however, that not all of the Hayes Court land is within a flood zone, and so a new Hayes Court could be constructed on a portion of the existing land.
A new life
To Hart, the question on the table is “Who in the town will provide assisted living for people on low incomes?”
Her answer: “We’re the only ones that have worked this hard.”
The alternative for low-income individuals who can’t live completely alone, said Hart, is a nursing home.
But some elders and residents with disabilities don’t require a nursing home’s level of care.
Of Hayes Court’s residents, 43 are over the age of 60.
According to Hart, the future Hayes, although not assisted-living licensed, will provide assisted-living-type services.
She anticipates services such as meals programs, an on-site wellness nurse, on-call 24/7 health-care professionals, and an on-site SASH coordinator.
According to Hart, SASH’s statewide organizers recently changed the program’s original name from Seniors Aging Safely at Home, to Support And Services at Home, to reflect the fact that the program serves people of multiple age groups and physical abilities.
Regardless, SASH supports seniors or people with disabilities living in their homes by surrounding them with a team of existing community organizations and resources.
The program operates similarly to a mutual aid agreement among emergency services, in which departments in different areas agree to assist one another in emergencies.
“With common communication, you develop creative programs and ways to address individual needs and aggregate them [to everyone’s benefit],” Hart told The Commons last year.
The BHA had wanted to set up a licensed assisted living facility in Hayes Court and Melrose Terrace. But after investigating the prospect further, the agency discovered the idea wouldn't be financially sustainable and therefore pursued SASH.
Brattleboro has a richness of support services, said Hart in 2010. “Why should we duplicate them? We should make use of them.”
Vermont-based Cathedral Square Corporation in Burlington developed SASH in response to the increasing needs of Vermont’s aging population, and in reaction to the state’s decision to not build any more nursing homes as part of its Choices for Care program.
Hart pointed out housing providers often get trapped between the rock of law and the hard place of caring for residents.
Legally, providers can only maintain buildings and collect rent. Socially, however, housing authorities serve as many elderly residents’ closest support networks.
For example, today, a resident may leave the hospital, and a visiting nurse can visit 24 hours later, potentially leaving a patient without medical supervision for a day. SASH would “fill those gaps,” Hart said.
SASH helps by allowing housing authority employees to operate beyond the role of landlord without needing to become trained medical providers, she said.
“SASH is really moving forward,” Hart added.
Although SASH is still in the planning stages, the BHA has a SASH Coordinator, Michele Carr, who also works as the BHA resident services coordinator.
The long-term goal, said Hart, is to have a SASH program throughout Windham County so people don’t have to move from their homes as they age.
The idea, she said, is to develop SASH services “into the muscle of the community.”
“It’s enabling people to have a place where they can age well. And age there. And not have to leave [their homes],” said Hart.
Potential funding sources for the rebuilding of Hayes Court will include a First Mortgage loan guaranteed through various federal and state funding sources.
The BHA has hired Jim Williams, of Williams and Freshee Architects, and Bob Stevens, of Stevens Engineering & Associates, both of Brattleboro, to design the new facilities.
Sooner or later
According to the website of the Vermont Agency of Human Services, five facilities in Windham County offer an assisted-living level of care: Country Village Community Care Home in Bellows Falls, Meadowview, Thompson House, Hilltop House, and Holton Home, all in Brattleboro.
Although not listed on the human service's website, the West River Valley facility in Townshend also provides assisted-living services, said White.
White also feels that Vermont does not have a logical progression of requirements for the different stages of care homes. She anticipates that at the next legislative session, she will bring to Montpelier the issue of Vermont’s “insane regulations of what’s required and how it’s reimbursed.”
She joked that she has already gotten in trouble with the Agency of Human Services, so she is willing to say that the people who set the regulations for the state and those who reimburse the caregivers don’t talk to one another, and that this lack of communication is part of the problem.
According to White, the beauty of a SASH program is that it provides community members access to multiple programs without duplicating what already exists within the community.
“It’s something we can’t not do,” said BHA Commissioner Christine Connelly. “It’s just something we have to do.”
Change, for better and worse
Jepson said that she fears losing the Hayes Court community as residents are dispersed.
But one resident, Joan Huneven, who lives with Multiple Sclerosis, described the change as “sad, but good.” She wants to maintain her independence as long as possible, she said.
“I want to take care of myself,” she said, and not have her kids do it.
“Once you take away someone’s independence, they give up,” she added.