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BHA residents weigh in on potential sites for new housing

Harvard graduate students help Brattleboro Housing Authority get a pulse check regarding five potential new site for apartments

When it’s complete, Harvard’s Community Development Project study will be made available at iBrattleboro.com and www.brattleborohousingauthority.com.

BRATTLEBORO—Harvard University’s Community Development Project submitted its final report to the Brattleboro Housing Authority on May 22, completing another step in BHA’s ambitious housing redevelopment plan.

Spurred by 2011’s Tropical Storm Irene, federal regulations, HUD funding, and residents’ safety, BHA has undertaken a multi-year, potentially multi-million dollar project to redevelop 280 housing units.

BHA provides affordable housing, managing and maintaining 307 housing units across six properties. The organization also delivers programs such as the federally funded Section 8 voucher program and the state-funded Transition to Housing, which provides transitional housing and support services for homeless families.

The CDP is a group of graduate students from Harvard University’s schools of public policy and design, dedicated to building locally driven partnerships aimed at improving communities’ quality of life.

Last fall, the BHA, in conjunction with Stevens and Associates, completed phase one of its Whetstone Alternative Studies. That effort considered candidate housing sites to relocate Melrose residents.

The list of some 20 sites was winnowed to five: Melrose Terrace, Moore Court, Hayes Court, the R. S. Roberts property on Fairground Road, and the People’s Bank/Renew site on Putney Road.

The CDP said in its report it conducted five site visits to BHA properties between February and May.

The graduate students interviewed residents at Melrose Terrace, Moore Court, and Hayes Court; residents and businesses located near the three BHA properties; town government leaders; and business community leaders.

Melrose Terrace in West Brattleboro provides 80 housing units for elderly and disabled adults. Residents there expressed hesitation about relocating, the CDP noted. Some residents said they were unclear on, or disagreed with, the premise of moving.

Irene’s flood waters swamped portions of Melrose Terrace, situated near the Whetstone Brook. The homes were built in the early 1960s, well before maps showed most of Melrose sitting in a flood plain.

According to BHA documents, Irene’s floods displaced some residents until repairs were completed. The 80 units were evacuated over flooding three times in 10 years.

Hayes Court, also located in West Brattleboro, has 72 studio and one-bedroom apartments for the disabled and residents over 50. Its residents also said they wanted to stay put.

Moore Court houses families in 28 apartments near downtown Brattleboro. Many of those residents told interviewers they were open to relocating, but wanted minimal traffic, green spaces, proximity to schools and transit, and general safety.

Moore Court’s proximity to Elliot Street, which has a reputation for higher crime, also was a concern.

Most of the residents at all three properties said they’d like to live in single-story buildings, such as those offered at Melrose.

Feedback on the potential of the R. S. Roberts and People’s site was mixed. For the R. S. Roberts site, people expressed concern about safety around traffic and youth, given the site’s proximity to high school and middle school.

Neighbors were generally positive about new housing on the R. S. Roberts site, but some worried about potential long-term revenue loss compared to a commercial development.

In general, more concerns were expressed about the bank property on Putney Road: The CDP quoted one respondent as saying “[it’s] kind of a highway.”

Respondents also questioned the potential to walk to amenities from the People’s property, and the problems of ambient noise and air pollution.

The state is planning to redevelop Putney Road. Upgrades would include laying continuous sidewalks, providing bike lanes, and traffic calming measures. This construction is years away, however.

In addition to the challenge of orchestrating multiple funding agencies and permits, the CDP pointed out several issues the development project would face:

The redevelopment project could also affect residents at Glen Park Mobile Home park, located on the Whetstone between Melrose and Hayes, which is part of Tri-Park Mobile Home Co-op.

Residents would need to be relocated during construction at Moore Court or Hayes Court. Tearing down and redeveloping the sites may incur additional costs.

According to the CDP, the new housing may not receive the Section 8 assistance comparable to what Melrose Terrace receives. If the new housing development is mixed-income, HUD guarantees only 25 percent of current Section 8 support.

In its recommendations, the CDP suggested that the BHA make a strong effort to keep residents in the loop.

The CDP also recommended that the BHA analyze transportation needs at the current and proposed sites.

Finally, CDP suggested BHA’s developer host sessions to seek residents’ views on design.

Hart praised the CDP’s report, saying feedback the Harvard students gathered reflected a rich and useful diversity of opinions the BHA would need in moving forward confidently.

“That was good,” she said. “That’s what we wanted.”

Sue Minter, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, who spearheaded state recovery efforts in Irene’s wake, graduated from the CDP program. According to Hart, it was Minter who brought the BHA to Harvard’s attention as the school sought projects to undertake.

Of the report’s findings, Hart said there were no big surprises.

“The value is affirming things we suspected. That was really good and we really needed that,” she said.

Each resident’s opinion is valid from his or her point of view, said Hart. The BHA isn’t sitting in judgment of them, she said.

She did take gentle issue with some statements of fact, such as one resident’s assertion that broken appliances aren’t replaced.

“We replace [broken] appliances,” Hart said.

Indeed, getting at the facts is essential. The housing authority would not embark on a two- to three-year-long, multi-million-dollar redevelopment project based only on assumptions.

“[This way] we can restart the project on the basis of good, factual information,” she said.

Of some residents’ concern about the eventual move, Hart said, “We can all agree on the wonderful aspects of Melrose.” But, she added, the fact remains that that portions of Melrose Terrace sit in the Whetstone Brook’s floodplain.

“It’s not safe,” Hart said.

Last fall, Hart said that Brattleboro and the state had not experienced as large a development of new affordable housing as the BHA had proposed. Vermont develops about 200 units a year statewide. The BHA intends to develop at least 280 in Brattleboro alone.

The BHA owns Melrose, Moore Court, and Hayes Court. It would have to purchase the other two properties. At this preliminary stage, Melrose residents may relocate to Moore Court, the R. S. Roberts site, or the People’s/Renew site. Moore Court residents may move to Melrose.

When asked why housing children at Melrose was acceptable, while housing elders and disabled adults there isn’t, Hart sighed, and said rhetorically, “Isn’t that great?” Federal law does not prohibit children from living in floodplains.

The reason, according to Hart, is that President Bill Clinton signed an executive order saying that critical populations could not be placed “in harm’s way.” The order defined critical populations as elderly or disabled, and included flood-prone areas in its definition of “in harm’s way.”

Before Irene struck, the BHA had slated the 72 units at Hayes Court for redevelopment. The buildings, built in the 1970s, had outlived their useful life.

Moore Court, built in 1972, is also due for rehabilitation.

When asked about the authority’s next steps, Hart said with a laugh: “We’re moving right along.”

Indeed, the BHA has started assembling its project team.

Burlington-based Housing Vermont has joined the redevelopment team as the BHA’s development partner.

Housing Vermont also partnered with the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust and Brattleboro Food Co-op on their downtown Brattleboro mixed-use building.

The BHA has also hired Massachusetts-based TAG Associates, Inc., which specializes in redeveloping and managing public housing sites. TAG will oversee BHA’s project finances.

Hart said that BHA will resume its site study analysis of the five properties.

The project has no definitive plan yet beyond reviewing the potential sites. All are on the table, Hart said, and added that the two vacant properties are the more attractive of the options.

The BHA wants to build as much replacement housing as possible.

Still uncertain: whether Melrose Terrace can serve as housing, or if the 15 buildings need to be taken down and no longer used for housing.

If the flood hazard is too great, said Hart, then Melrose will become a “passive recreation” area — a park, perhaps.

Multiple regulatory bodies from the town to the state to FEMA to HUD will come into the funding and permitting process.

“It’s a very complex project and has so many players,” Hart said.

Hart said the BHA could not yet estimate the project’s costs.

The redevelopment project will only meet the current housing needs of replacing Melrose Terrace, said Hart. It will not fill future low-income housing needs.

In Vermont, a public housing project typically has seven funders, she added.

Hart stressed that the BHA must continue to reach out to residents and encourage them to ask questions, part of a dialogue that would shape the project to everyone’s satisfaction.

She said that housing changes are still a good two to three years off, so residents had plenty of time to make sure their voices were heard, and not worry unnecessarily.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #206 (Wednesday, June 5, 2013).

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