Vergennes seeks money for $7M affordable housing project

VERGENNES — The Vergennes City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to apply for a $400,000 Community Development Block Grant that will support a planned 24-unit affordable housing project on Armory Lane.
The action followed a sparsely attended public hearing held during the council’s Jan. 22 meeting. The hearing included a presentation of project details by officials from the nonprofits planning it, the Addison County Community Trust and Housing Vermont.
Samantha Dunn from Housing Vermont and Elise Shanbacker from the Addison County Community Trust (ACCT) said they hope construction can begin in August and finish next year.
“We’re looking at occupancy if everything goes well in 2020,” Shanbacker said.
Dunn said the project has obtained its local permits and is waiting on Act 250 and other state permits that they expect to obtain.
They acknowledged the project is not cheap.
The city’s application for a $400,000 Community Development Block Grant is a relatively small, but still important, piece of the financing puzzle for what they said is in all a roughly $7 million project, including the land purchase plus construction, design and permitting costs.
Funding will rely on a combination of Low Income Housing Tax Credits (which Shanbacker has said would be the largest part of the package) and grants from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and Vermont Community Development Program, to which the city is applying for the grant.
Apartments will be a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units and be reserved for residents who earn between 50 and 120 percent of the county’s median income.
Shanbacker said during the project’s city zoning application process that ACCT uses the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development median income numbers for the county, which in 2017 were $73,400 for a four-person household, $58,800 for two people, and $51,400 for one person.  
On Tuesday she and Dunn said rents would be, for example, $600 for a one-bedroom apartment subsidized for residents who earn 50 percent of the county’s median income, or $1,200 for a two-bedroom apartment for residents whose income stands at 120 percent of the median income.
Currently, Shanbacker said ACCT’s waiting list for its Vergennes-area affordable housing stands at 136, many of whom are seniors who will be welcome in the new project, although units are not specifically set aside for seniors.
During the zoning process Shanbacker said units will incorporate senior-friendly design elements, and she said seniors make up about 40 percent of the residents of the more than 200 existing affordable-housing units ACCT manages in the county.
On Tuesday she and Dunn added seniors would be welcome directly across Armory Lane to make use of programs offered at the senior housing project there.
 Plans presented to the Vergennes Development Review board this past spring called for a private sidewalk leading to a crosswalk that will link to the city sidewalk on the opposite side of Armory Lane, plus 37 parking spaces to the west of the new building.
The affordable housing project will be built on a 6.52-acre parcel that is one of three that Housing Vermont bought along Armory Lane about 14 years ago. The senior housing project is on another lot, and Dunn said Mary Johnson Children’s Center is still working on funding a daycare center on the third parcel, although nothing is imminent.
Housing Vermont has been working on affordable housing for this site since buying the land, Dunn said.  
“This has been in the works for a long time,” she said.
Although he voted for the resolution, Alderman David Austin did question whether Vergennes and other communities that hosted affordable and senior housing projects were being treated fairly.
More than a decade ago state lawmakers gave nonprofits that operate such projects a tax break by ruling that they should pay taxes based on the projects’ revenue streams, which creates lower tax bills, and not on higher brick-and-mortar construction costs.
Austin was on the council in October 2007, when the council resolved not to apply for any Community Development Block grants to support senior or affordable housing after that change in the state law. The council amended its stance to allow applications for senior housing in order to support the Armory Lane project, and then in October 2017 rescinded the original resolution completely.
City planner Danelle Birong had already noted when Austin spoke that the affordable housing project would pay about $20,000 a year in taxes. And Shanbacker said her home in Vergennes paid about $1,500 per bedroom in taxes, while the proposed project would pay nearly $1,000 in taxes, which she said struck her as fair enough.
“I support the balance we have,” Shanbacker said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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