Many who showed up to the Champlain Housing Trust’s informational meeting on Friday seemed to know at least one other person by name. They asked about family members and shared thanks for watering plants while away on vacation – interactions illustrative of what Fort Ethan Allen residents call a growing sense of community in the historic neighborhood, one they’ve worked hard to cultivate over the years.
Which is why, in the face of recently announced plans to bring 32 beds of recovery housing into the fort, forcing the relocation of a dozen apartments, these residents are now raising red flags, concerned over the potential impact to their neighborhood.
“We have a community, and it’s exciting and it’s wonderful,” said fort resident Ann Laberge. “I would not want to deprive someone else the chance to start again. At the same time, we have something very precious, [and] it’s so easy to destroy it.”
The meeting followed CHT’s recent announcement of plans to convert three buildings on the Essex side of the fort – 1005, 1006 and 1007 Ethan Allen Ave. – into recovery housing. The project would be carried out in partnership with the Vermont Foundation of Recovery, which runs six other recovery homes in Vermont.
Officials from both agencies say the project not only provides much-needed support for a segment of the population that often struggles to reintegrate into the community, but it also makes fiscal sense.
For CHT, the project offers a chance to secure $1.8 million in funding through a patchwork of grants and a small loan from the University of Vermont – money that will help CHT pay debt incurred in the $4 million building sale from UVM, through which it received the three buildings in addition to nine others since sold off as low-income condos.
VFOR would then look to lease the buildings and centralize its Chittenden County operation in search of efficiencies to help expand further into the state.
But while officials call it a win-win for both entities, residents who live in the buildings and nearby feel they are missing from the equation.
“The only ones benefiting are these people moving in. Everybody else in the surrounding area isn’t benefiting; we’re losing,” said Randall Bullis, who owns a nearby condo purchased from CHT. “We’re not rich. We’re trying to make a step better for our lives. I moved out of a project to get away from this type of this situation.”
CHT expects to hear back about the grants over the next few months. If the project moves forward, the trust would need to relocate tenants in the 12 existing apartments. CHT estimates the relocations could begin in February and carry through November.
One of those tenants is Jacqueline Corbett, who said her family moved there three years ago and worked hard to get where they are. Corbett argued the neighborhood is already seeing the impacts of the drug crisis, noting she’s found needles around, and called on CHT to help current residents instead of replacing them.
“They don’t need anything more than we do,” Corbett said of the recovery residents. “They don’t deserve this.”
Corbett appeared to be the only speaker who lived in one of the units up for relocation, and her frustration underscored the tension at the heart of CHT’s proposal: To help one group of people, it must uproot another.
Amy Demetrowitz, CHT’s director of real estate development, said the trust is committed to working with families to understand their needs and plans to provide displaced tenants financial assistance – as required under federal law – by paying for moving expenses and new security deposits. The trust would also give them first dibs on any openings within organization’s 2,000 apartments, including some that are located within the fort.
Asked why the trust chose the fort to begin with, Demetrowitz explained it would be financially difficult to construct a new building for this purpose alone. “To some extent, it was just looking at our portfolio and saying where we do own some properties that might actually work,” she said. And because the properties had housed married grad students when CHT purchased the buildings, there are no long-term tenants there, she said.
The location also benefits VFOR by allowing the foundation to offer transitional housing, where people can gain more independence while still remaining under the VFOR umbrella. The transitional housing also gives VFOR an oppourtunity to explore the reunification of families.
Plus, the fort is just a good place to live, Riegel said, pointing to its open space and easy access to public transportation. And as for any impacts already being felt by the drug crisis, he said substance abuse is a problem that impacts every corner of the state.
“There are needles on the streets, there are things in the woods, no matter where we go,” he said. “One of the things I believe is if you want to move out the darkness, the best way to do that is to bring in the light.”
“We can’t run from it everywhere,” he added. “And there is no perfect location.”
Another point of contention was the level of supervision provided at the recovery homes. Riegel explained that VFOR pays housing managers to be on site for 10 to 15 hours a week, with fort units expected to have at least four housing managers, which would mean up to 60 hours of on-site supervision.
When some in the crowd felt that wasn’t enough, Riegel responded that houses always have someone on call, and most people driving by will have no idea the houses are for those in recovery.
And he emphasized that VFOR seeks people who are committed to their recovery and willing to better themselves on a daily basis, so not only do tenants not need constant supervision, but requiring it would be counterproductive.
“You don’t want to provide so much support that people don’t grow, that people don’t take some personal responsibility for their home and for their environment,” Riegel said. “Because if you do that, they then go out to live on their own and they don’t know what to do.”
“It’s about providing enough scaffolding early on to support somebody and help them develop the skills necessary and then slowing removing that scaffolding … and let the community or the home take over,” he continued.
Not every fort resident spoke against the project. One woman called the fort’s diversity one of its biggest assets, and emphasizing the need for services like recovery housing, said she supported the two agencies’ goal. She then challenged other residents to consider the positive impacts of their partnership.
“As a fort resident and a CHT owner, I will continue to support all of my neighbors whether they’re sober, whether they’re poor, whether they’re black, whether they’re white … It’s painful for me to sit here and listen to some of the ideas of sidelining and marginalizing and not supporting people who need our help in our community,” the woman said.
But others said CHT is still relatively new to the community, and suggested that the organization may need to build more trust before carrying out a project of this scale.
“What you’ve laid on the table is pretty large, and it’s going to take some time and some processing,” said resident Kara Lenorovitz. “I hope you truly honor that that may not line up with the timeframe that you’ve laid out, and that you allow for that trust to be built.”
The housing trust plans to host another informational meeting on a yet-to-be-determined date. The Essex selectboard will also host CHT representatives for a public hearing on August 19 at the Essex High School cafeteria, with the meeting set to begin at 7 p.m.