Refugees could bring new focus on housing

With area residents concerned about welcoming newcomers amid a housing shortage, those working on the issue say that it shines a light on a problem that needs to be solved for everyone

BRATTLEBORO — While plans move ahead to bring refugees and asylum seekers here from abroad, many are concerned with the already worrisome existing housing shortage and how that is being addressed to help residents and refugees alike.

Multiple people involved with local housing needs and the refugee efforts told The Commons that welcoming refugees doesn't appreciably worsen the longstanding problems for people accessing the area's housing market.

And, they said, the spotlight from the refugee resettlement efforts could, in fact, bring new focus and new federal dollars to increasing housing options for everyone - and solving some problems, like water and sewer access, that have historically limited those options.

Comments concerning a potential influx of refugees expected in the coming weeks and months have been flying on the Brattleboro, Vermont Facebook group, both pro and con.

“I personally welcome them with open arms and believe [whoever] does come to Brattleboro will be a great addition to our community,” one member, Rachel Eve, noted in response to comments on a thread posed by several group members: How can a community house an influx of newcomers when those who are already here are themselves desperate for housing?

“Those who are angry about the [housing] crunch here would do well to get actively involved in the numerous local efforts to address the needs of unhoused community members through local governance and community organizations,” she continued. “Rather than just shouting about it on social media every time any post brings up new people coming to town.”

Kevin Donnelly also supported the effort.

“I would ask you all to consider that just because one group has much needed attention, it doesn't downplay another group's needs,” he wrote.

The fact that refugees would come needing community support “doesn't diminish the plight of our own homeless, and sufficient resources exist for both - not one or the other.” Donnelly wrote. “Please keep the narrative about solving the issue for all, not picking or choosing which ones deserve it.”

Seeking solutions for all

New Multicultural Community Center/office Director Joe Wiah said he understands the fear.

“ECDC acknowledges the concerns of some community members and we are committed to working with community stakeholders towards solutions to challenges such as housing availability which benefit all community members,” said Wiah, hired by the Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC), which is partnering with the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC) and the Community Asylum Seekers Project (CASP), among others.

“When a community such as ours is welcoming and inclusive, its services are accessible for all vulnerable groups, not limited to refugees alone, and we are committed to working all stakeholders in finding a sustainable solution.”

CASP Executive Director Kate Paarlberg-Kvam said key organizations have had the housing piece of the welcoming refugee puzzle on their radar for some time.

She said that the current efforts to welcome those in the humanitarian parole program - “used to bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the United States for a temporary period of time due to an emergency,” as defined by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services - does not equal discounting those already here who are seeking shelter.

“We have an extant housing crisis in this state that has hobbled the working class,” Paarlberg-Kvam said. “The arrival of parolees from Afghanistan is shining a spotlight on that crisis, not exacerbating it - we're talking about 25 people right now, which could be only a handful of families.”

“That's close to the same number of people the Community Asylum Seekers Project has already resettled here, and those folks are now neighbors, friends, and employees of local businesses,” she said.

“Meanwhile, the median price of a home here rose something like 50 percent in the first year of the pandemic. That wasn't because of Afghans, it was because our economic system values profit over need. Parolees from Afghanistan are not the target of our housing frustrations,” Paarlberg-Kvam continued.

“We're talking about people being sent here because they have nowhere else to go and because a war that was fought in our name destroyed everything they knew and loved,” she said, calling refugee resettlement “a spotlight, not a spark.”

“If that spotlight can bring in more attention to our desperate need to safeguard affordable housing, and bring state and federal money to the area to create that housing, then everyone who needs a place to live can benefit,” Paarlberg-Kvam said. “This isn't an issue of nationality, it's an issue of class. Everyone deserves a place to live, no matter their income or national origin, and that's what we should all be aiming for.”

BDCC Welcoming Communities Manager Alex Beck said the effort recognizes the local housing need and is looking to a long-term resolution for all.

“The housing crisis is not new, and isn't exacerbated by asylum-seekers or refugees any more than it is by new teachers at WSESU [Windham Southeast School Union] or traveling nurses at BMH [Brattleboro Memorial Hospital],” said Beck. “The solution is more housing that is affordable and accessible for all of our community members, and we defer to and work closely with, the housing experts in the region that have been working on these issues for many, many years.”

Beck said the BDCC “is focused long-term on supporting efforts that increase the size and quality of the housing stock, especially for working families, and working within the Housing Partnerships to ensure these efforts contribute to, rather than compete with, the resources available to our most vulnerable and unhoused populations.”

“We are lucky to have organizations like the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust, Brattleboro Housing Partnerships, and Groundworks Collaborative in our community, and anyone looking to support access to housing can support their work,” Beck said.

Addressing a Catch-22

Elizabeth Bridgewater, executive director of the Windham and Windsor Housing Trust, is well aware of the issue, noting that “it's part of our core mission to increase housing.”

“We're one piece of the puzzle as a housing provider in the community, and we do have a robust pipeline for new housing development,” Bridgewater said. “We have a project in Putney, and early-stage project in Brattleboro, and another in Windsor. Funding is pretty competitive.”

She pointed out that state funding priorities for housing is directed to downtown areas for building new structures or reusing existing buildings, and there are limited areas in which to do either.

Also limiting new housing is municipal infrastructure - water and sewer, specifically - which is expensive both to add and to operate.

“Competitive housing dollars are tied to projects that utilize municipal systems, so it's hard for organizations like ours to access funding where water and sewer don't exist,” says Bridgewater, who is working on a seminar for town governments to help municipal officials understand how interconnected these issues are.

“One of the best things towns can do to attract more housing in their communities is to invest in water and sewer, especially in village centers,” she said. “With ARPA [the American Rescue Plan Act] funding coming directly into municipal budgets, this is a good time to plan for the future.”

For communities that are a part of the state's Vermont Downtown Program through the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, it's easier to get funding for downtown development, but a town can't get that designation without appropriate water and sewer infrastructure.

Water and sewer infrastructure is connected to how money is allocated because “that's the most cost-effective use of public money,” Bridgewater said.

“As a housing trust, we're trying to tackle this issue working with and educating towns,” she added. “We want towns to be aware this is a way to attract more housing dollars.”

Despite the multifaceted problem, Bridgewater sees a bright side.

“I think there's a lot of recognition that this is a widespread community problem, and that's the silver lining,” she said.

“I think in the past, people thought this was a problem for low-income people, whereas now the broader community is starting to see it's a housing system, and the whole system has these kinds of 'traffic' problems,” Bridgewater continued. “It affects all of us.”

“It's becoming more widely recognized that the housing shortage is everyone's problem,” she said. “This is a good thing, as it will require a lot of political will to solve this problem - at the local, state, and national levels.”

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