BRATTLEBORO—It’s been a tough year for affordable housing in Brattleboro.
Between the loss of 50 apartments to the Brooks House fire in April and the destruction at Glen Park and Melrose Terrace from Tropical Storm Irene in August, there hasn’t been a lot to cheer about.
That’s what made the celebration last Thursday for the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT) at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center so special, according to WWHT executive director Connie Snow.
“We’ve had so many troubles with housing this year, it was nice to be able to celebrate something great with our family of supporters,” she said.
The something great was WWHT’s acceptance into the NeighborWorks America program.
NeighborWorks America is a national non-profit created by Congress to assist community-based revitalization through financial assistance, technical assistance, and training. It accepts applications from established community-based housing and community development organizations to affiliate as chartered members.
Receiving a NeighborWorks charter is a highly competitive process, and WWHT becomes only the fifth organization in Vermont that has earned one.
With its affiliation, WWHT now has access to “significant capital resources and federal dollars into the state, as well as providing excellent training opportunities,” said Gus Seelig, executive director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. “This will only serve to strengthen an already strong organization.”
Newly combined nonprofit
The award of the NeighborWorks America charter caps off a year of milestones for WWHT.
In May, Windham Housing Trust acquired the assets of the Rockingham Area Community Land Trust (RACLT) and became the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.
The newly combined organization now has an ownership interest in nearly 700 homes and apartments throughout the two counties, including single-family homes, rental apartments, single-room occupancy, mobile-home park lots, and housing for the elderly and for people with special needs.
Thursday’s event at the museum, which drew more than 200 people, was also a celebration of the Housing Trust’s biggest project to date — its collaboration with the Brattleboro Food Co-op to create 24 mixed-income apartments above the Co-op’s new retail store, which should be finished by the spring.
While the majority of WWHT’s work has been the restoration of historic properties and revitalization of neighborhoods, the Co-op project represents new housing opportunities in the downtown district.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who was invited to speak at the event, took note of the Co-op project in his remarks.
“I’ve been watching that building go up, and I can tell you that’s something that’s not happening around the country,” he said. “We are at the beginning of a renaissance for downtowns in Vermont.”
Seelig said he has been involved with every WWHT project since the organization was formed as the Brattleboro Community Land Trust in 1987.
“The vision you had 24 years ago when we talked about what we could do for the Clark/Canal neighborhood, you never lost it,” said Seelig. “You kept your eyes on the prize.”
Seelig called the Co-op project “one of the most sophisticated projects I have ever been involved with,” and described it as a tribute to the vision and commitment of WWHT, which he said became an even stronger organization with the addition of the former RACLT assets.
“Windsor and Springfield are totally different places now because of the Rockingham Area Community Land Trust,” he said.
Michael Butchko, deputy director of field operations for NeighborWorks America, called WWHT “exactly the kind of organization that we charter.”
But it was a long time in coming, said WWHT Board President Jeff Shumlin.
He said his organization had applied several times over the years, only to be rejected. Combining RACLT, which had been a NeighborWorks member, with the Windham Housing Trust to form a bigger organization gave NeighborWorks a powerful incentive to maintain a presence in southern Vermont.
“We’re now as healthy as an organization can be,” said Shumlin.