By Amy Ash Nixon, as seen in the Caledonian Record: http://www.caledonianrecord.com/news/depot-square-buyers-welcome-challen...
WINDSOR — Housing Vermont - an agency formed in 1988 to develop permanent, affordable housing across Vermont - recently agreed to purchase the Depot Square apartment building in downtown St. Johnsbury.
It’s not the the non-profit’s first foray into low-income housing re-development.
About a decade ago, Housing Vermont spearheaded the purchase and rehabilitation of Armory Square Apartments in downtown Windsor.
The building - named Union Square Apartments but commonly referred to as “the block” - was a low-income housing apartment complex viewed as a major stumbling block to downtown development at the time it changed hands.
Nancy Owens, president of Housing Vermont, said Depot Square Apartments first came on the agency’s radar a few years ago when Housing Vermont took part in the community visit process to St. Johnsbury with the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD).
When Owens participated in the brainstorming sessions in St. Johnsbury, she said the way Depot Square was seen in St. Johnsbury sounded much the same as how Armory Square was perceived years ago in Windsor.
“There are a lot of similarities,” said Owens. The buildings even had the same owner at the time Housing Vermont arrived.
Housing Vermont is purchasing the building from long-time owner Herb G. Berezin and his Massachusetts-based company, Mt. Holyoke Management for $1,850,000. Housing Vermont says it’s scheduled to take ownership of the building on or before July 30. The property is assessed by the town at $1,252,600. According to town records, Berezin has owned the properly for over 25 years.
The conversations around how to improve St. Johnsbury’s downtown often came back to Depot Square, ” … We want to do this, but until (Depot Square) is cleaned up, we can’t do it,” she said.
Like Armory Square was in the past, Depot Square sees frequent police and ambulance calls and is a drain on the emergency system in St. Johnsbury.
“I don’t think that Depot Square is quite as much of a public nuisance,” as Armory Square was before it was rehabbed, said Owens. “Armory Square was really bad. There were a lot of police calls there, a lot of fire calls… this was the story down in Windsor. It had a really big impact on the public services, and other challenges.”
Owens said of Armory Square, “People had concerns about people that were living there, kids being in the building, it was not a safe environment.”
The Windsor Police Department reported more than 350 calls a year to the old Armory Square before the housing agency acquired the property and transformed it, according to Housing Vermont.
“It’s a similarly great building, this big, historical building right in the heart of downtown Windsor,” said Owens, referring to the importance and critical downtown location occupied by St. Johnsbury’s Depot Square Apartments.
Owens said the ribbon-cutting for the restored, reinvented Armory Square in Windsor was in December of 2009.
“And so here we are, almost 10 years later, and the property is no longer a problem and hasn’t been all this time for the community … In fact, I think it’s just the opposite,” said Owens. “It’s seen as a good place to live. The residents there are safe. We did some things there that I think we hope to do at Depot Square.”
Owens said, “The one thing that we did right away is we reduced the overall number of apartments in the building, and similarly that’s one of our expectations at Depot.”
At Armory Square, there were more than 70 units and the number was reduced to about 55, said Owens.
At Depot, there are 47 units at present, and the plan is to cut that number to between 35 and 40.
Residents were relocated in Windsor, as they are planned to be in St. Johnsbury (with the agency covering their costs).
Most people don’t return to their earlier housing after being resettled, said Owens.
In the case of Armory Square, none of the about 100 tenants who live there today were there a decade ago.
“We reduced the density, people were crowded, and like Depot, there wasn’t any real community space inside the building,” said Owens. “We built some nice space on the ground floor for residents to have places for meetings or events. We have a program that we work on with the local hospital,” on nutrition events and more.
At Depot Square, Housing Vermont plans to likewise reduce the density, “and give people a little more space in the building, better amenities, laundry, a community kitchen, community programming events … quality of life issues,” said Owens.
Summit Management, which manages the St. Johnsbury House, will manage the reinvented Depot Square after the rehab project, said Owens.
“We are going to be more present,” she said of the day-to-day management of Depot Square, which will likely have a new name by the time of a ribbon-cutting after the renovations are complete here. “One of the things that we try to do with our properties is to have more focus on positive outcomes, not only providing an affordable home, but also quality access to opportunities and to things that will enhance their lives. We have relationships with and engage with social service agencies.”
Housing Vermont works to bring health and wellness programs to tenants, and community programs for children living in their properties, including mentoring opportunities, said Owens.
“We approach the management of the properties as more than making sure the lights are on, and the bills are paid, and the residents are making the rent, but also trying to enhance and create very real community as part of the transformation,” said Owens.
Housing Vermont was founded almost 30 years ago through the state’s Housing Finance Agency, using a tax credit program to create a lasting stock of better cared for affordable housing across the state.
Since then, Housing Vermont has gone on to develop “close to 200 properties,” said Owens, “We have about 6,000 apartments in total. We develop properties typically in partnership with a local entity… we co-own them together.”
The Housing Vermont project in Windsor was about a $10 million construction contract, said Owens.
Housing Vermont says once the deal is complete the residential portion of the building will be operated as is for 12 to 24 months.
The redevelopment of the building is then expected to take another year.
Depot Square is being bought for $1,850,000. Renovations could cost as much as $8-10 million.
Unlike the housing block in Windsor, Depot Square in St. Johnsbury has retail space on the ground level, on both Railroad Street and Eastern Avenue.
See http://www.caledonianrecord.com/news/depot-square-buyers-welcome-challen... for full article.