Holton Home gets new life as cohousing

This winter, the defunct assisted-living facility will begin serving traveling health-care workers for the Brattleboro Retreat

BRATTLEBORO — Closed in May 2022 after pandemic conditions resulted in a shortage of money and qualified nursing staff to run it, former assisted living facility Holton Home is now being transformed into housing for traveling health care workers.

The new incarnation of this historic building at 158 Western Ave. is a result of a collaboration among M&S Development, which is adapting the structure; Garden Path Elder Living, its owner; and the Brattleboro Retreat, whose temporary staff can find housing there in an almost-impossible rental market.

“Our intention is to support the Retreat as it increases its staffing levels while helping Garden Path rebuild its finances to pre-pandemic levels,” says Bob Stevens, president and principal of M&S Development.

“Because Holton Home will cater specifically to traveling health care professionals, this will hopefully help the community by freeing up local apartments for long-term rentals,” he says.

As described on the firm's website, M&S has been helping communities “find local solutions to advance complex, multi-faceted projects with profound social and economic impacts” since 2014.

The company holds a 10-year lease to retrofit and manage the building, and the Retreat has signed a memorandum of understanding to lease all 35 units for traveling nurses and doctors who need housing for a minimum of three months.

In turn, the health care providers will pay rent to the Retreat.

The term “traveling nurse” is employed when medical institutions hire medical workers from afar who are often paid a premium if they are willing to work for three to six months, explains Stevens.

“So a lot of shortages are filled by traveling nurses,” he says. “All of our hospitals and nursing homes have had travelers in the community, but they have to find housing.”

When a traveling nurse does find a place, it “uses up housing,” Stevens says.(1)

Another benefit of this new use for Holton Home is that the health care workers won't be living alone in a community where they are likely to be temporary residents.

“They're often here by themselves for a short stint, and this also gives them a little more social connection,” Stevens says. “We thought it was a good communal model for that.”

Starting this week, about $500,000 is being spent to paint, carpet, and furnish 35 units. The money is coming from capital that M&S and the Retreat are investing in the project, some of which could be offset by grants.

In the cohousing model, each unit is comprised of a private bedroom and bathroom, and tenants will share the common kitchen and dining areas. Common areas will be cleaned daily, while an outside cleaning service will clean individual bedrooms twice a month.

“We're not changing the layout of the building; there are already bedrooms with bathrooms,” says Stevens. “And there's a commercial kitchen, so we're going to turn it into a shared kitchen,” where everyone will have access to a locker, to a mini-fridge, and to numerous stoves.”

M&S will provide property management and after-hours on-call support.

Stevens says the first group of nurses who will move in by Feb. 1, and all units are expected to be filled by the end of that month.

“We're excited that the building could be used in its current form for this time and it could also return back to elder housing,” Stevens says.

“When our primary lease is over with Garden Path, [if] they are ready to put it back into senior housing, they can,” he says.

“It seemed like a win” for all parties, he says, and, “if it works as a housing model, we can work to do more of these.”

Back on track

The Brattleboro Retreat, founded in 1834, is a not-for-profit, regional specialty psychiatric hospital and addiction treatment center that offers “a full range of diagnostic, therapeutic, and rehabilitation services for individuals of all ages and their families,” according to the facility's website.

Holton Home was incorporated in 1892 as the Brattleboro Home for the Aged and Disabled by an act of the state Legislature after Dr. Henry Holton and other concerned residents expressed a need.

Garden Path Elder Living, a mission-driven nonprofit, was formed in 2015 by the merger of Holton Home with nearby Bradley House, which has been a senior living facility since 1990.

Garden Path closed Holton Home earlier this year, citing a decrease in residents seeking congregate elder care during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and moved remaining residents to Bradley House.

“This project allows us to get back on track regarding our finances,” says Garden Path's Executive Director Bob Crego, who previously worked for Windham & Windsor Housing Trust as director of asset and property management.

Crego has witnessed the community's housing struggles.

“From my background doing housing development, I know that workforce housing is the hardest segment of the population to address,” Crego says. “Putting these units online will be a huge boost to the supply of workforce housing in this community.”

The Retreat's Erik Rosenbauer, vice president of government relations, communications, marketing, and emergency services, says hospital officials feel “fortunate” to collaborate with Garden Path and M&S.

The Retreat provides inpatient and outpatient mental health care for children, adolescents, and adults. A lack of clinical staff has inhibited the hospital's ability to return to pre-pandemic staffing levels, which also limits the number of clients it can serve.

Hiring additional traveling clinicians is part of the hospital's effort to reach its pre-pandemic level of 100 inpatient beds by June, says Rosenbauer.

“I see this project as a way for the Retreat to get back to full recovery and to more fully meet the needs of our community and the entire state of Vermont,” he says. “As the provider of inpatient psychiatric services for children and adolescents, we want to have as much capacity and space available as is needed.”

“Nothing is more painful across the board than hiring new workers only to have the housing barrier prevent them from accepting the job,” Rosenbauer says. “Holton Home is a chance for us to overcome that last barrier and increase our workforce.”

WWHT considered apartments

Stevens also thanks Windham & Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT) for that organization's support of Garden Path.

Earlier this year, WWHT expended considerable resources to investigate the possibility of turning Holton Home into apartments.

WWHT Executive Director Elizabeth Bridgewater called the failure of plans to come to fruition “disappointing,” but says she is excited by the idea of short-term workforce housing.

“Despite that, this project contributes to the community's housing, and that is a good outcome,” she says.

On Dec 21, the Brattleboro Development Review Board approved a change of use for Holton Home to another specialized residential structure that supports the cohousing living model.

The board has asked M&S to return later this year to discuss how managing Holton Home is going and to determine if any changes need to be made regarding operating the facility or parking.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates