Two years to a ribbon cutting?

Brattleboro Housing Authority outlines redevelopment plans during annual meeting

BRATTLEBORO — Under the roof of the newly-sold Robert H. Gibson River Garden, Brattleboro Housing Authority staff and leadership highlighted achievements of 2013, including progress on its new venture, Red Clover Commons, which replaces Melrose Terrace.

An audience of 25 attended the BHA's annual meeting at the River Garden on Main Street on Nov. 18.

“2013 was a very busy year,” said William Bedard, chair of the BHA board of commissioners.

Along with the Red Clover development, the BHA temporarily rehoused 80 families while completing extensive repairs to resident apartments.

BHA Executive Director Christine Hart said the BHA served about 1,000 people over the year and that she felt “happily overwhelmed” at the “tremendous service” of BHA staff members.

“Hopefully, two years from now, we'll be at a ribbon cutting [for Red Clover Commons],” said Nancy Owens, the meeting's keynote speaker.

Owens is president of Housing Vermont, a nonprofit housing development company. Housing Vermont has developed approximately 4,800 affordable rental apartments statewide. The BHA and Housing Vermont are partnering to finance and build Red Clover Commons, which is planned for Fairground Road, behind Walgreens.

The path to a new public housing facility contains multiple twists, turns, and hurdles.

“[There are] a whole lot of hoops we'll all be jumping through to get there [Red Clover],” said Owens.

Replacing the BHA's Melrose Terrace property, along the banks of the Whetstone Brook, has topped its priority list since Tropical Storm Irene flooded the 80-unit property in 2011, displacing 26 elderly and disabled adults. The housing development predates federal flood maps.

After an extensive site study of locations in Brattleboro and Guilford, the BHA chose the R.S. Roberts property at the corner of Canal Street and Fairground Road. The new Red Clover Commons development will host 55 units.

That's a good start, but not enough to meet the need, said Hart. She added that Red Clover is just the beginning of a multi-phase rehousing of Melrose Residents.

The R.S. Roberts site was the first choice of Melrose residents and the site selection committee, said Owens and Hart.

The federal government is “stepping away from housing,” said Owens of financing new public housing. This lack of funding requires Housing Vermont take particular care with any funds it receives.

Although the state can't replace dwindling federal funding, said Owens, Vermont has supported low-income housing through the Vermont Housing Conservation Board.

The state will also receive additional federal disaster funds related to Irene. The BHA is eligible for some of these funds, said Owens.

Marshall Wheelock, president of the board of Brattleboro Housing Options, Inc., and member of the BHA board of commissioners, said Red Clover partners will depend on low-income housing tax credits. The tax credit program allows BHOI access to low-interest loans. These loans may account for 50 percent to 60 percent of the project's total funding.

BHOI is a nonprofit that operates at the behest of BHA, said Wheelock. Low-income tax credits are only available to nonprofits, not public housing authorities. BHOI will serve as the entity in whose name project loans will be issued.

Housing Vermont and BHA are also collaborating with the Windham Regional Commission to clean the site, which is a brownfield.

Hart said the BHA has held three Melrose resident meetings to discuss the Red Clover project. She has also met with Wilson Woods and Fairground Road neighbors to present the project and field questions.

Feedback has been mixed, she said. Many neighbors expressed concerns about traffic, declining property values, and the demographics of Red Clover Commons residents.

Owens has often fielded neighbors' concerns around low-income or public housing.

She counter-argues that public housing authorities are required by HUD to make payments in lieu of taxes. Many low-income projects also pay property taxes. The amount they pay, however, is capped by law in respect of residents' limited incomes.

Ultimately, Owens notes, residents in affordable housing are people who contribute to their communities.

“They're citizens who live here” and contribute, work, and volunteer within their communities too, Owens said.

The BHA has begun the formal process of “disposing” of Melrose Terrace, removing it from the public housing roster, said Hart.

The BHA appeared before the Brattleboro Selectboard Nov. 19 as part of the authority's Red Clover application to HUD. An application requirement includes explaining the project to and receiving a letter of support from the local jurisdiction.

Owens estimates permitting the new development will take four to six months. This is one of the many “critical hoops” that the BHA must jump through, she said.

Securing funding will start in earnest about March 2014, said Owens.

Another critical hoop: moving the HUD housing subsidies from Melrose Terrace to Red Clover.

“We're at the beginning steps but, hopefully, it will all go smoothly,” said Owens.

The Authority doesn't know what will become of Melrose Terrace once all the residents are relocated.

“It's a very big question mark,” said Hart of Melrose Terrace's future.

The BHA owns Melrose outright. The buildings remain sturdy. No public funds, however, can go to rehabilitating the property because it's located in a floodplain, said Hart. The buildings, constructed at grade on slabs, are not suited to being elevated.

In a twist perhaps unique to government, 50-year old Melrose Terrace may soon receive a historical designation from the Vermont Division of Historical Preservation.

So, while the Agency of Natural Resources wants the property abandoned because its in a floodplain, said Hart, the Division of Historical Preservation expects the buildings to remain standing as historical structures.

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