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Depot Square Remake To Feature 38 Affordable Units

2019-02-19

In 2015, VCRD brought its Community Visit process to St. Johnsbury where residents identified a number of action ideas for future progress in town. "Redevelop and Revitalize Downtown Buildings" and "Improve Housing in Downtown St. Johnsbury" were two of the priorities for action the community identified. This article shares current progress on the affordable housing project at Depot Square.

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By Amy Ash Nixon as seen in the Caledonian Record: https://www.caledonianrecord.com/news/depot-square-remake-to-feature-aff...

ST. JOHNSBURY — When Depot Square is renovated in a more than $8 million top-to-bottom rehabilitation project by its new owner, the nonprofit Burlington agency Housing Vermont, the 38 apartments resulting will remain all affordable units.

That information was shared at a recent public meeting by Housing Vermont VP for Development Kathy Beyer, who addressed members of the St. Johnsbury Housing Committee.

She said hopes for the rehabilitation of Depot Square – now being called the New Avenue Apartments – to include mixed-income housing, a blend of market rate and affordable units, is not possible due to the building’s design, plus the fact the downtown 4-story brick building on the corner of Eastern Avenue and Railroad Street has no green space.

An outdoor area, plus larger sized apartments would be required in order to market some of the units at market rate to make the building a mixed-income situation, explained Beyer.

At present, Depot Square apartments has 47 units, nearly a dozen of which are vacant.

Housing Vermont, which bought the building from its long-term, out-of-state owner in July, has begun the extensive planning process for a full rehab of the historic building, constructed in the late 1890s as the New Avenue Hotel, a grand building that went up on the important downtown corner following a fire on the block which had destroyed a wooden structure there previously.

Due to the building having been constructed as a hotel, not an apartment building, the layout does not allow for the units to be as large as many apartments are today that command market-rate prices, Beyer said.

Housing Vermont plans to have five efficiency apartments, three 2-bedroom units, and 30 1-bedroom units, for a total of 38 units.

By reducing the number of apartments by nine, the apartments that are built in the rehab will be larger, but they still will run smaller than market-rate rents, Beyer said.

When the housing non-profit first bought the building, and worked with the Town of St. Johnsbury to make the purchase possible – nearly $1 million held by the town in State funds was used to help buy the building – one of the hopes touched on was that Depot Square might be able to host a range of incomes, and not be 100 percent low-income housing.

“I think maybe I was too honest in sharing (at the housing meeting) … It’s a little bit of a balance of the policy and priorities, and New Avenue currently all 47 units have project-based rental assistance, it’s the same thing as Section 8 rental assistance, it’s attached to the apartment, if a resident moves out the rental assistance stays with that unit for the next resident,” said Beyer. “That’s money from HUD (the department of Housing and Urban Development), that’s from the federal government. The value of that to New Avenue is something like $250,000 a year, and I don’t say that in terms of the owner capturing that revenue, it’s the benefit for the residents. It’s the only housing program out there that guarantees you don’t pay more than 30 percent of your rent. It’s a huge resource, we know the need is there.”

Beyer said, “We already made the decision to go from 47 units to 38 units, so we’re losing nine units, and we do lose those nine project-based rents … to go from 47 to 38, so if we then said among the 38 we want to do mixed-income, say we want to do five or eight, we again, lose forever, the rental assistance attached to that unit.”

“We would accomplish the mixed-income goal, but we would be depleting the resource of affordable housing forever,” Beyer said of the housing assistance attached to the units. “That’s where we came out - we don’t want to erode this really valuable benefit, and the federal government isn’t making up new rental assistance, you can’t get your hands on new rental assistance.”

When the building was first bought the possibility that some mixed income might be part of the blend was there, “It was a possibility,” said Beyer.

“I’m totally sharing my angst over this because I understand the community would want to see mixed income,” she said, explaining further her having raised the mixed income question at the housing panel earlier this month. “Can we achieve a robust downtown that has other types of housing?” Housing Vermont asked, she said.

She pointed to the Bemis Block in Hardwick, which, like Depot, had 100 percent project-based rental assistance, and suffered a fire, and was rebuilt by Housing Vermont. “We decided to stay with 100 percent rental assistance,” she explained. “It was such a resource to the low-income” needs of the town, she said.

“I hope folks are already seeing a change,” Beyer said of the appearance of the block since Housing Vermont stepped in this summer, sprucing up the corner for its management office, and cleaning and dressing the windows in the vacant first floor commercial space that is owned by its partner in the venture, Kingdom Development Company. She said Housing Vermont intends to be “much more supportive of the residents, and pay better attention to the building … We hope to bring more robust services to the building. We have many examples of having done that,” with other downtown low-income housing redevelopment projects, she said.

Joe Kasprzak, Assistant Town Manager for the Town of St. Johnsbury, who was at the housing meeting where Beyer raised the topic of why the building won’t be able to have any mixed income units, said, “I don’t know that it was ever discussed about it being mixed income.”

“I think that there probably was public comment at the time (of the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s Community Visit process to St. Johnsbury) about ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it could be mixed income … ’ but as I understand it, the Section 8 vouchers that are with that building, as (Beyer) mentioned, I think in all of our discussions, we knew that it was going to be subsidized, affordable housing - this is exactly what we expected.”

Kasprzak said since Housing Vermont stepped in, things at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Railroad Street are seeing visible improvements and he has faith in the new owners and their vision going forward with the project.

“We have no reason to believe that this will be anything but a first class operation and a great place for people to live and a great improvement to our community,” said Kasprzak. “I’m really excited to hear what’s going to happen with the 10,000 square feet of commercial space,” on the first level of the building. “I believe that will be a component in our helping to stimulate other investment in town.”