Apartments in Homes hits a major milestone

Nonprofit completes 50th unit in program that carves affordable apartments out of existing housing stock

BRATTLEBORO — The nonprofit Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing recently completed its 50th apartment in the Apartments in Homes Program.

The program offers grants and technical assistance to single-family Brattleboro and Bellows Falls homeowners seeking to create modest apartments in their homes. The goal is to provide “a very economical way to produce new ... energy- and land-efficient ... housing,” the program's literature says.

Adding housing this way is “politically more palatable than putting in a new [housing] development,” said Affordable Housing co-founder and associate director Byron Stookey, who noted this plan leaves the footprint of a neighborhood unchanged.

In addition to improving the rental housing stock, the project also helps homeowners afford to stay in their homes by providing a steady source of income: rent.

Money and monitoring

Although the nonprofit makes clear their financial support won't cover the entire cost of adding an apartment, estimated between $8,000 and $45,000, it does provide up to $4,000. And this is a grant, not a loan; the homeowner doesn't pay it back.

The program also provides assistance with choosing a contractor. Although the homeowner chooses their own building professionals, Affordable Housing provides a list of contractors, general builders, plumbers, masons, roofers, and others, who have worked on these projects before and have agreed to do so again.

Participants also receive monthly check-ins from Tyler Maas, who leads the nonprofit's Apartments in Homes committee.

“We're not policing the project, we're just trying to monitor how it's going and note successes,” he said.

“This happens during the construction process, and annually after the apartment is built,” Maas said, noting some of his clients have never dealt with a contractor before.

Maas has dealt with plenty of contractors. He has a long history of working as a laborer, project manager, and business owner in the construction field. He also studied disaster relief at the School for International Training.

Maas's role at Affordable Housing is volunteer; his full-time job is the Windham County field representative to the Vermont State Housing Authority.

Growth ahead?

The Apartments in Homes program has the ability to fund three apartment projects per year, for at least the next three years, Maas said. Last year, the Brattleboro Selectboard voted to give the program $27,000, the result of a grant application Maas wrote. Other funding comes from Affordable Housing.

“If [Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing] had more people on the committee, we could do many more projects and maybe expand the territory” beyond Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, Maas said.

“Right now, there are five projects in progress,” Maas said, “and we started the year with eight."

Maas said this program is likely the only one of its kind.

“We are the main program in Vermont” offering this type of assistance, he said. “It's happening in big cities like Portland, Oregon. They ease zoning and help with utility hookups, which saves the homeowner money, but they don't give money” directly to the homeowner, he added.

Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing is unique in this type of program.

The program began in 2004 when Byron Stookey and his wife Lee tried buying a home in Brattleboro. “It cost more than we could afford,” Byron said, so they added an apartment.

Byron and the other members of the nonprofit's board thought “it seemed an idea worth trying to peddle,” so they brought it to the Brattleboro Selectboard in search of funding. “They weren't interested,” Byron said. The group managed to support two apartments-in-homes projects by “scraping the barrel of our own funds.” They gave each project a $2,500 grant.

Increased funding

“We went back to the Selectboard, this time with a wonderful woman, Jayne Stout,” whose house was one of the pilot apartment projects, Byron said. “She told the Selectboard they'd be very naughty if they didn't fund this project.”

It worked. Since then, the Brattleboro Selectboard gives the nonprofit money in “three- or four-year chunks,” Byron said, noting the grants have gone up from $3,000 to $4,000 per project.

“The reason for concentrating in Brattleboro and Bellows Falls is, we found it difficult for homeowners to deal with septic permits and water supply in towns without town water and sewer systems,” Byron said.

Although financial sources currently provide grants for apartments only in Brattleboro and Bellows Falls homes, other sources of funding - including Thompson Trust money - have in the past supported projects in surrounding towns, too.

The program creates what the state defines as “accessory dwelling units,” Maas said, explaining these are studio or one-bedroom apartments in the homeowner's primary residence, taking up less than 30 percent of the home's square footage.

Maas said 13 months is the typical timeline from completing the application to receiving a certificate of occupancy for the new dwelling.

Some participants are “empty nesters, divorcees,” Maas said. Another “huge market” for this program “is people looking to sell their house,” he said. When the house fails to sell as fast as the owner hoped, “they decide to stay put and add an apartment,” he said.

One homeowner's experience

Joan Marshall fits that bill. Through the program she recently added a one-bedroom apartment “with a big living room and craft-made cabinets” to the lower level of her West Brattleboro home.

“My kids grew up and got married and moved out,” Marshall said, noting she wants to retire in five or six years, “and this will help."

She tried selling her house and gave herself a year to do it. But, “I wasn't willing to lower the price and just give it away.” When Marshall's plan didn't work, she switched to what she calls her Plan B: “create a space in the basement."

“Houses aren't selling, and the rental market is tight, so I can create a nice, private space for someone to live,” she said.

Last September, Marshall contacted Maas, who came to her house and looked it over, making suggestions about how to prepare the space for the contractors.

“I had to get a new furnace and move it” to another location in the basement to create an additional means of egress, per fire and safety regulations, she said.

Marshall said she is happy with the general contractor she hired, Dan Jenks from Finish Line Construction in Dummerston, who was on Affordable Housing's list. “I think I made the right choice. He was very good and communicated well with me on costs and progress,” Marshall said.

Construction began in March, was completed the second week in June, and Marshall's tenants moved in in July.

Marshall received her grant money three weeks after construction was complete.

“It's a really nice thing,” Marshall said. “You're getting rewarded for providing a place for someone to live."

'Be selective'

She recommends the program to others, but cautions them to “be selective, not be in a big rush to choose the different contractors, and realize everything it involves.”

Marshall said the Affordable Housing paperwork explains the process well, including providing information on sources for low-cost loans.

“Be willing to trust your contractor enough to let them help you see the potential” in your future apartment, Marshall said.

“I really love the apartment. If there's a way for me to live down there, I might,” she said.

Maas said he loves leading the Apartments in Homes program.

“It's unique, it's cool, it's housing but not just for low-income people,” Maas said, adding, “it's helping middle-income people as well.” There are no income requirements to participate, Maas said. “We don't check incomes, and anybody can sign up,” he said.

“The rental market needs more apartments in Brattleboro. Lots of working, middle-income people are struggling day to day. It's important for the community to help middle-income people, too,” Maas said. “It's hard to find a program that can do so much with so little.”

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