More than bricks and mortar

Brattleboro Housing Authority presents Tom Yahn Award to Michael McNamara, Jen Hollar

BRATTLEBORO — The Brattleboro Housing Authority's mission to provide affordable and safe housing has not changed in its 50 years, but the authority has changed how it thinks about its services.

“Housing is a platform for so many other things,” said Executive Director Christine Hart. “You can open up people's worlds so much from [this] platform.”

“This is where we can be instrumental,” she said.

According to Hart, affordable housing is more than bricks and mortar. It's also about people and community, and residents living in affordable housing are part of the “fabric” of Brattleboro's larger community.

The BHA awarded two Tom Yahn Housing Leadership Awards at its annual meeting held at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden on Nov. 29.

Michael McNamara, Vermont field director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Jennifer Hollar, deputy commissioner for the Vermont Department of Economic, Housing, & Community Development, received the award.

“[McNamara and Hollar] recognize affordable housing leadership is about the residents and participants” and not just buildings, said Hart.

The award winners have assisted the county in numerous ways over the years, said Hart. The two brought people together after Tropical Storm Irene last year and were always responsive to the BHA's needs.

The authority made McNamara and Hollar honorary citizens of Windham County.

According to Hart, the housing authority and the Windham & Windham Housing Trust founded the annual award for people in the two counties. The organizations alternate in choosing the winners.

The BHA owns and manages five properties in Brattleboro with 284 apartments. According to Hart, between the properties and the federal Section 8 voucher program it manages, the BHA serves 500 residents.

For its first 25 years, the BHA focused on building its housing, said Hart. The following 15 years, it solidified the authority's management structure.

Since 1995, when Hart joined the authority, the BHA has focused on strengthening resident services and community relationships.

Within the past year, the BHA has added three new positions aimed at increasing resident services such as job counseling and community programs.

Hart said the BHA succeeds when it builds programs that meet residents where they are and help them achieve their personal goals.

Dictating what actions residents should take and goals they must reach ends leads nowhere, she said.

After Tropical Storm Irene's floods damaged the Authority's Melrose Terrace property, the BHA started an intensive re-evaluation of its properties and how to relocate its older residents outside the flood plain.

Portions of Melrose, which serves elderly residents and adults with disabilities, and neighboring Hayes Court were built in a flood plain prior to the drawing of flood maps or zoning.

The BHA and the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust have identified five potential locations for new housing. The feasibility study phase has started to evaluate redeveloping Melrose, Hayes Court, and a third BHA property, Moore Court, and building two new properties, the People's United Bank property off Putney Road and the former R.S. Roberts parcel on Fairground Road.

Stevens & Associates will conduct the feasibility study funded through a $100,000 Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Fund grant awarded to the state by HUD for Irene recovery.

“Irene put everybody on their heels a little,” said Hart. “I do think we're coming out a very strong organization.”

Hart said the BHA and Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, two organizations following very different regulations and mandates, are the first housing authority and housing trust in Vermont to launch a joint development project.

“It's an incredible opportunity,” she said.

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