Nonprofits to build affordable housing in Bristol


Developers are hoping to break ground for Bristol’s Firehouse Apartments by the end of this year. The 20-unit neighborhood of mostly affordable housing will be located just east of the fire station on land that Evernorth (formerly Housing Vermont) and the Addison County Community Trust are purchasing from Bristol-based Stoney Hill Properties LLC. Image courtesy Evernorth

SAMANTHA DUNN, EVERNORTH

KEVIN HARPER, STONEY HILL PROPERTIES

BRISTOL — Someday in the not-too-distant future, a few dozen Bristol residents will likely include some version of the following phrase when directing people to their homes: “Turn at the firehouse.”

The Firehouse Apartments project, formerly known as the Stoney Hill residential development, is gradually making its way through the design and permitting process. The plan calls for 20 housing units in three buildings off West Street, just east of the Bristol Firehouse. Much of the development will be designated as affordable housing.

“Several of the 20 units will be available to middle-income households (80-120% of the area median income), while the rest will be set aside for families earning under 50% or 60% of area median income,” said Elise Shanbacker, executive director of the nonprofit Addison County Community Trust (ACCT), a partner in the project.

ACCT, which manages more than 300 units of affordable housing in Addison County, has teamed up with nonprofit developer Evernorth (formerly Housing Vermont) to purchase 2.5 acres from Bristol developer Kevin Harper’s 12-acre Stoney Hill project, which includes a 9.6-acre business park.

“This (housing) project is a great opportunity to create a new neighborhood in Bristol next to the firehouse where people can walk to work in the business park next door, send their kids to school across the street, walk downtown and have access to the Bristol Trail Network nearby,” Samantha Dunn, a developer at Evernorth, told the Independent last week.

Stoney Hill had designed and received permits for 15 units of market-rate housing, but given the complexities of the current real estate market, Harper and his business partner David Blittersdorf decided to sell the land to ACCT and Evernorth.

The parties agreed to the deal last fall and are currently negotiating a purchase agreement.

In Harper’s view, it’s impossible to build housing that Bristol residents can afford right now.

“To my mind, and my partner David’s mind, this is a much better option in the end, because it’s a mix of market and quote-unquote affordable, and it’s going to provide homes for workers and people who live in town and work in town,” Harper told the Bristol selectboard on April 26. “This is a great opportunity to build tight houses that are efficient, modern houses, and build a neighborhood that most people can afford. We couldn’t do it. We’ve been three years sitting on this, trying to make it happen, and it’s only gotten worse.”

QUICK REDESIGN

Evernorth and ACCT are hoping to close the deal and start construction by the end of 2021, but they’ll need to amend Stoney Hill’s original zoning permit, which was approved for 15 units.

They’re trying to use as much of Stoney Hill’s original design and site work as possible, Dunn said in a Feb. 18 memo to the selectboard, but a redesign will need to happen to accommodate fixed-income housing and five additional units.

Among the design changes proposed by Firehouse Apartments:

•  decreasing the size and increasing the number of units in the rowhouse and duplex footprints.

•  expanding the rowhouse structure to incorporate community laundry, a community gathering space, a property management office and private storage space.

•  eliminating single-family cottages.

“This site plan allows us to minimize the road required and take advantage of a large open space on the site,” Dunn said. “This open space will be able to accommodate community gardens, a covered pavilion, picnic tables and a play structure.”

For all of this to work, however, Firehouse Apartments needs more land.

As luck would have it, the town of Bristol is one of its neighbors.

“Because the density of the site is currently maxed out with 15 housing units, we would need the town of Bristol to sell or donate some of the adjacent undevelopable land to achieve density requirements in the zoning regulations,” Dunn said in her memo.

After Dunn, Shanbacker and Harper made their case on April 26, the Bristol selectboard agreed to redraw its lot lines to give the apartment site the acreage it needs. Recognizing that additional units would increase property taxes paid to the town, the selectboard agreed there would be no charge for the adjustment.

Exact details of the transaction are still pending, but Bristol Town Administrator Valerie Capels estimated the donated land is worth about $5,000.

FUNDING

The total estimated project cost for Firehouse Apartments is $8 million-$11 million, Dunn told the Independent, “though with construction costs the way they are, who knows.”

Evernorth and ACCT will be pursuing funding from at least three sources:

•  the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, a federal program designed to help create and preserve affordable rental housing by reducing federal tax liability over a 10-year period for owners of qualifying rental housing. “Getting this extra bit of land (from Bristol) was necessary to qualify,” Dunn said.

•  the Vermont Community Development Program, which helps communities on a competitive basis by providing financial and technical assistance to identify and address local housing (among other) needs.

•  the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which makes grants and loans for the acquisition, rehabilitation and construction of affordable housing by nonprofit housing organizations.

ARPA FUNDING

Firehouse Apartments is one of more than 30 affordable housing projects around the state that could benefit from federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding and start construction over the next three years, according to Vermont Commissioner of Housing and Community Development Josh Hanford.

“Bristol is a great location for such a project,” Hanford told the Independent. “It’s walkable and there’s a school nearby. And there are other developments in a similar position around the state that can’t get online because of a lack of funding.”

Which is why Gov. Phil Scott has proposed aggressive spending on housing over the next three years, Hanford added.

On April 6, Scott proposed spending $1 billion in ARPA funding on state infrastructure, including $249 million for housing.

“Using American Rescue Plan Act funds to accelerate our commitments to develop mixed-income housing, create public-private partnerships to enhance homeownership opportunities, construct permanent housing for those experiencing homelessness, and expand necessary shelter capacity will have lasting effects on the health of our communities and residents,” Scott said. “This plan brings 5,000 units to market by the end of 2024 — the greatest investment in housing in the history of Vermont.”

Those 5,000 units would include:

•  150 shelter units to increase capacity in emergency shelter communities ($12 million).

•  600 affordable rental units to help homeless households transition out of motels over the next 12-18 months ($90 million).

•  2,434 units in the “existing pipeline of affordable housing projects,” which include mixed-income rental, homeownership, manufactured homes and improved farmworker housing units ($90 million).

•  681 affordable housing units via investment in the Vermont Housing Investment Program, helping private owners of vacant rental properties bring units back online ($15 million).

•  1,135 homeownership units via investment in a new private Homebuilding Program, focused on creating “missing middle” housing for moderate-income buyers ($41 million).

The “missing middle” is key to the governor’s plan, Hanford said.

“Starter homes. We’re way behind because the pandemic drove prices up, and there are young people out there who are worried they’ll never be able to own a home, that they’ll be renters for the rest of their lives,” he said.

RISING COSTS

According to developers Hanford has spoken with, construction costs have increased by $50,000 per unit over the past nine months.

Indeed, according to a Monday article on Vox.com, lumber prices alone have skyrocketed.

“For years, the price of 1,000 board feet of lumber has generally traded in the $200 to $400 range. It’s now well above $1,000” writes Emily Stewart, who points out the average new single-family home takes about 16,000 board feet of lumber to construct. “A new house that would have cost $10,000 in wood to get off the ground a couple of years ago now costs $40,000 worth of wood — assuming, that is, you can even get your hands on the lumber.”

Lumber futures are trading above $1,000 all the way out to November, Stewart reported, so there’s no reason to think prices will be coming down anytime soon.

At the same time, ARPA funding has a “shelf life,” Hanford said.

“Rather than waiting for costs to go down, and realizing that other states are also flush with money, the time to act is now — get projects funded early and attract contractors,” he said.

INFRASTRUCTURE

Gov. Scott’s ARPA spending proposal divides $1 billion into five “buckets,” which in addition to housing include economic development, climate change, water/sewer infrastructure and broadband/telecom.

To a certain degree, these other categories are also about housing.

“Housing can’t be solved by itself,” Hanford said. “There’s a relationship between housing and infrastructure, and infrastructure is also expensive. But we need to bring it along, too: broadband, energy efficiency, water/sewer. Housing is where all these issues come home at night.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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Addison County Independent