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Eight possible sites named for public housing

Housing Authority plans to build 152 affordable units in three years

BRATTLEBORO—The Brattleboro Housing Authority Housing Alternative Study committee has revealed its short list of eight potential public housing sites..

Adam Hubbard, a committee member and a project manager with Stevens & Associates, told an audience of about 25 gathered in the Hayes Court community room last Thursday that the BHA-owned Melrose Terrace and Hayes Court properties also made the cut.

The other sites included BHA’s Moore Court property on School Street, the large parking area next to Academy School on Western Avenue, a parcel owned by the Austine School, the Esancy Property on Western Avenue near Exit 2, the R.S. Roberts property on Fairground Road, and the Hannigan Field property on Partridge Road in Guilford.

In the wake of flooding from Tropical Storm Irene last year, the housing authority has embarked on a redevelopment of affordable housing options for its tenants.

The BHA, with help from Stevens & Associates, the town planning department, and community members serving on the 14-member planning committee, have an aggressive three-year timeline to build 152 new affordable housing units in town.

“We may end up with multiple sites around town,” said Hubbard. “The challenge for the housing authority is to build efficiently.”

He said that a complex of single-story structures like Melrose would not be built today. The layout does not allow the allotted land to be used efficiently.

The projected cost stands between $10 to $12 million, said BHA Executive Director Chris Hart.

In its purpose and need statements, the committee said it wants “to provide low to moderate income residents, seniors, and individuals with disabilities with a safe, accessible, affordable, and appealing place to live.”

The committee continued, “Any proposal will need to be mutually beneficial to the residents, the community, and Whetstone Brook. The project will need to meet all regulatory and funding requirements of private, local, state, and federal bodies.”

Committee members reviewed a list of 25 properties before quickly whittling the list to eight. According to Hubbard, the chosen eight will receive deeper site and feasibility studies to determine suitability.

Review criteria included safety and security, accessibility, proximity to services, cost, integration with existing communities, ease of building on site, flood hazard/natural resource impacts, and aesthetics.

According to the committee, the BHA owns and manages 284 affordable housing units with 152 located at Melrose and Hayes.

Damage from Tropical Storm Irene last August highlighted complexities facing the housing authority. Post-Irene, the BHA commissioners rebuilt homes damaged at Melrose to rehouse 80 displaced residents. Meanwhile, the BHA said it knew it needed a long-term solution.

According to Hart, most of BHA’s Melrose Terrace property, designed for senior and disabled tenants, sits in the Whetstone Brook’s flood plain.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we must do flood mitigation at Melrose,” said Hart, who added that according to the BHA’s minutes, four floods have occurred at Melrose since 1962.

“It’s a real dilemma in the fact that we have tens-of-millions of dollars of investment here,” Hubbard said. “We build infrastructure in places we shouldn’t, then always spend a lot of money to protect it.”

Hubbard said, seven units are in the Whetstone’s floodway. an area likely to contain most of the brook’s force during a flood.

Portions of Hayes Court, built in 1972, also sit in the flood plain.

Flood plains are heavily regulated by the state and federal government. According to Hart, the federal government will not fund projects for “sensitive populations” like seniors and people with disabilities for housing in flood plains. These conditions make it difficult to acquire funding for improvements at Melrose.

Audience members questioned why the BHA should follow the government’s flood maps, created in 1962, when the flood flowed in very different paths than the maps outlined.

Roderick Francis, director of the town planning office, explained that the maps represented the areas the government considered at the highest risk for flooding.

In a previous meeting, Hart said the committee views the flooding problem and solution beginning with Hayes. State river scientists have told Hart that during Irene, a debris dam grew near a three acre empty space at Hayes. The water cut a new route through Glen Park and back towards Melrose.

Beyond flood plains and 80-year floods like Irene’s, Hayes Court has “reached the end of its useful life,” said Hart. The 72 units there are not adequately handicapped accessible, run on electric heat, and make a sieve look energy efficient.

Hubbard said, at this stage, that Melrose and Hayes properties “are definitely on the [short] list.”

But, he added, these properties may change in their use and look.

The committee has discussed multiple scenarios for future housing. These possibilities include removing the seven buildings at Melrose in the flood way to give the Whetstone a larger flood plain, removing an existing flood wall, lowering the stream banks, and building a flood wall deeper into the property to protect the remaining buildings.

Redesigning Melrose and Hayes, while constructing new housing at one of the other proposed sites, is a possibility, said Hubbard.

The options also include tearing down the existing buildings at Hayes and replacing them with a housing complex able to accommodate more people. Moving the family housing currently at the BHA’s Moore Court to Melrose and moving Melrose’s senior and disabled population to a redesigned complex on the Moore Court property is also on slate.

Although federal regulations don’t allow seniors to live in a flood plain, “Its okay to have children in the flood zone,” said Hart.

The audience responded with disbelief to this information.

The Whetstone Housing Alternative study process kicked off in April with a series of committee meetings. The group, with members representing the BHA, Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, the town, Windham Regional Commission, Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing Corp., the West Brattleboro Association, and residents from Melrose Terrace and the Glen Park Mobile Home Park, held its first of three public meetings on June 7.

Although excited about the project’s prospects for improving the living environments for BHA tenants, the committee acknowledges it has a steep hill to climb. Finding appropriate housing sites is step number one.

Success will depend on numerous regulatory and funding sources from the local, state, and federal levels lining up, said Hart.

But, cautioned Hubbard and Hart, Brattleboro will still face a shortage of affordable housing. The 152 units are projected to meet only the immediate need, they said.

The next public meeting is scheduled for Aug. 30 at the Melrose Terrace Community Room.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #162 (Wednesday, July 25, 2012).

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