From left, Matthew Littell of Utile Architecture & Planning, Bellows Falls resident Dalila Hall, and local developer John Dunbar discuss building missing middle housing on Hall’s residential lot in Bellows Falls during a Oct. 18 tour convened by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
Ellen Pratt/The Commons
From left, Matthew Littell of Utile Architecture & Planning, Bellows Falls resident Dalila Hall, and local developer John Dunbar discuss building missing middle housing on Hall’s residential lot in Bellows Falls during a Oct. 18 tour convened by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

Middle ground

A state project brings a fresh look to Vermont’s urgent need for more housing of the right size — and Bellows Falls is one of five places in Vermont where these ideas will take shape

BELLOWS FALLS — On a recent mid-October day, tourists mingled with locals in Village Square Booksellers, a young DIY-er in jeans bought a screwdriver at J&H Hardware, and clusters of lunchgoers sat in the windows of the Moon Dog Cafe.

Groups of children, home from an early-release school day, played in the neighborhood park. A train chugged in the distance. Fall Mountain, a blaze of autumn color, towered over the falls that gave both the town and the mountain their names.

And in the lower theater of the Bellows Falls Opera House, a group of residents, planning commissioners, Selectboard members, a legislator, Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) staff, the town's development director, and architects from a Boston-based architecture and planning firm met to discuss how to address the village's need for more housing in a way that creates a community where people live, work, and raise families.

The meeting was convened by ACCD as part of its Homes for All Toolkit project. The project aims to encourage small-scale, local development of missing middle housing (MMH) - various options of smaller-scale multiple-unit housing in walkable residential neighborhoods - by providing educational, training, and financial resources to community-based developers.

Housing for the times

Missing middle housing, a term coined in 2010 by California architect and urbanist Daniel Parolek, encompasses accessory dwelling units (ADUs), duplexes, small-scale multi-household buildings, and neighborhood-scale mixed-use/live-work buildings. These housing types were largely developed in the pre–World War II era in response to changing economic times.

"Bellows Falls was a major mill town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries," said Lyssa Papazian, a historic preservation consultant in Putney, in an interview with The Commons.

In addition to the first paper mill in Windham County, the village had a woolen textile mill and factories that produced furniture, sashes and blinds, carriages, and organs.

"When those businesses expanded - especially in response to a very lucrative war contract, for example - you would see increases in housing in the next year's census," she continued.

Those historical records reveal that "three-quarters of the houses that used to be single-family were now taking in boarders, and then, once they filled up all of the spaces in those houses, they added a room or two, or added a little house in the back," said Papazian.

But during the mid-20th century, Vermont started employing zoning models that weren't necessarily developed here.

These zoning practices made many of these Missing Middle Housing options illegal or limited where they could be built. Single-family homes began to dominate neighborhoods.

"The changes definitely didn't match the historic development pattern in our villages," Papazian said.

Reintroducing missing middle housing

Bellows Falls and four other Vermont towns (Arlington, Rutland, Vergennes, and Middlesex) will be included in the Homes for All project as case studies.

Using illustrated visualizations of the five communities, the project will show how missing middle housing building designs can be integrated into existing Vermont neighborhoods and communities. These permit-ready designs can be tailored to fit an individual developer's goals.

The Homes for All Toolkit aims to ease the financial, logistical, and regulatory burdens that local developers face in building such housing. According to Amy Tomasso, planning coordinator at ACCD, phase one of the project will provide local developers with start-to-finish how-to educational resources, including a home design guide based on the case studies.

Phase two, which will begin in 2024, will be a free, year-long, hands-on training for a group of developers. In the final project phase, ACCD will award construction and development grants between $100,000 and $500,000 for implementation of development projects.

Boston-based Utile Architecture & Planning, Inc. is a consultant for the project.

"This project will help Vermonters to build missing middle housing affordably," said Zoe Mueller, an urban planner with Utile. "It will grow a cohort of small developers and cultivate local support for the idea through an understanding of how this kind of housing can contribute positively to Vermont's communities."

According to ACCD's website, the Homes for All Toolkit will focus statewide attention on small-scale, incremental development as a strategy to bring back missing middle housing to address Vermont's housing and affordability crisis.

Incremental development encourages community-based developers. Limited by their size, these developers stick with small, simple buildings in a fairly concentrated area.

Incremental development flows from the premise that many individuals working for their own individual good result in a good community: one that promotes opportunity, quality of life, and personal and financial growth.

"Enabling small-scale developers keeps wealth in the community," said ACCD's Tomasso. "Small-scale developers are often working in their backyards, and they know their communities and what they need."

'Bellows Falls has a lot of potential'

John Dunbar is an example of this type of local developer. He and his twin brother, Jeff, grew up in Bellows Falls and are invested in the community: Jeff is a Village Trustee and John is on the planning commission. While they work full-time for Farnum Insulators in East Dummerston, in their off hours they have developed and rent 14 one- and two-bedroom apartments in the village.

"Bellows Falls has a lot of potential," John Dunbar said. "The housing stock is getting older and tired, and we feel it can be improved."

He said that he and his brother are "also fighting against the stigma of landlords as slumlords."

"It doesn't have to be that way," he said. "The quality of housing can be improved by people living in the community who want to provide housing as a way of meeting some of their financial needs."

Rockingham (which includes the incorporated village of Bellows Falls) has some of the oldest homes in the state. According to the Rockingham housing needs assessment, conducted by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) in 2022, 58% of the homes in the town were built prior to 1939, in decades when Bellows Falls was a flourishing mill town.

"Being a small-scale developer and landlord helps me better understand why a lot of our buildings in Windham County are getting more tired," Dunbar said. "The economics of being a housing provider and landlord are really difficult. Construction costs are high, and incomes often can't support the rents needed to cover construction."

"A lot of landlords are sympathetic to rising housing costs, and so they tend to try to keep the rents low," Dunbar said. "They want to keep a good tenant, and they don't want to price their apartments out of the market."

But, he said, "it makes it very difficult to actually have any money to invest into the building long term."

The need to 'right-size'

The population of Bellows Falls peaked at 4,883 in the 1910 federal census and has been declining ever since. According to the 2020 census, the village population is 2,747.

Despite a declining population - which some attribute to changing demographics, like smaller family size - there is a need for more housing. The region especially needs housing to accommodate households that have become smaller, as well as affordable housing to attract new buyers and renters who want to live and work in the area.

According to the housing needs assessment, 38% of Rockingham's households are one-person households, but only 17% of homes are studios and one-bedroom units.

"There are a lot of big, three-bedroom units in Bellows Falls," said Dunbar. "But there are a lot of single people and couples who don't need those big units."

"Increasing density by allowing more units per building is something that can help with our housing problem," Dunbar continued. "The financials work better if a duplex can be made into four, one-bedroom units. It's easier to keep the rents lower for four, one-bedroom apartments than for just two."

But, like many Vermont towns and villages, Rockingham's antiquated zoning regulations don't always allow for this sort of reimagination.

The town will update its zoning regulations, which date to 1982, through a bylaws modernization grant awarded by the state. "There's a lot of simple things that could be changed in the zoning that would allow us to get more density [in the village]," said Bellows Falls Development Director Gary Fox.

The updated regulations will conform to the state's new municipal zoning reforms under the Housing Opportunities Made for Everyone Act, signed by Gov. Phil Scott in June.

The HOME Act standardizes zoning in residential districts served by municipal water and sewer by permitting multi-unit dwellings to be built, by increasing building and lot standards, and by lowering parking thresholds. These reforms take effect in December 2024.

'There's an opportunity there'

Since 2021, a group of local residents and stakeholders - the Rockingham Incremental Development Work Group - has been working to promote small-scale development and investments in Bellows Falls and Rockingham.

Member Pat Fowler, owner of the Village Square Booksellers, sees evidence of what the Bellows Falls Residential Target Market Analysis, conducted by LandUseUSA and the Incremental Development Alliance in 2021, concludes: There is demand for more housing in the village.

"At least once a month somebody comes into the bookstore and wants to know if there are any houses for sale," Fowler said. "I've had couples come in, they've gotten a job up here and they're looking around and can't find anywhere to live."

Based on the results of the Residential Target Market Analysis, up to 35 new and existing homeowners and 150 new and existing renters could potentially migrate into and within Bellows Falls each year between 2021 and 2025.

"I think we're going to see a burst of incremental development because of the state's housing crisis," said Papazian. "But I also think this infill development is responding to a greater desire for urban living than there used to be. People want to be in community. So there's an opportunity there."

You can't build it without funding

Funding for the Homes for All project implementation grants will depend, in part, on the success of an application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Pathways to Removing Obstacles (PRO) to Housing grant.

A consortium of Vermont agencies and community development nonprofit organizations is applying this month for $8 million for local, regional, and statewide efforts to increase housing opportunities across Vermont.

In the meantime, other funds are available to local developers.

The Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) is conducting a series of "listening sessions" around the state to provide information about funding and to learn how the agency can best help overcome challenges to building and renovating affordable housing.

The sessions are open to anyone interested in creating and preserving affordable housing, including small and aspiring developers.

A virtual session will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 30. To register, visit

A different kind of American dream

John and Jeff Dunbar have advice for young people interested in getting into small-scale development.

"We tell as many young people as we can - those who have the American dream of getting out of school and getting a job and buying a house - that we think people should, instead, start by living in a duplex or a three- or four-unit building and renting out some units," John Dunbar said.

"Rents will help pay for expenses so that they can then fix up the building and have an asset," Dunbar continued. "And then if you wish to buy that single-family home, you go on and do that."

"But I think we need a younger generation that is entrepreneurial and gaining skills in order to not only provide housing but to fix up buildings as well," he said.

This News item by Ellen Pratt was written for The Commons.

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