A partially burned residence at 57 Park St. is pictured, where Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity plans to build four new homes next spring. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

A partially burned residence at 57 Park St. is pictured, where Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity plans to build four new homes next spring. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Four Chittenden County families will have a chance to purchase an affordable home next spring thanks to Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity, which plans to build in Essex for the first time in its history, organization officials said.

Habitat recently purchased property at 57 Park St. and plan to tear down what’s left of a partially burned house from a July fire and build a two-story triplex in its place. A fourth home will be inside a carriage house at the back of the property and will be revamped as needed, said Catherine Stevens, the organization’s advancement director.

“We’re looking forward so much to building in Essex,” Stevens said. “We think it’s a great location for families to be.”

Habitat plans to break ground in the spring and hopes to finish construction in 2017, Stevens said.

The closing comes four months after the selectboard provided $3,500 as part of the town’s human services funding initiative, the first time the town has funded the organization.

A United Way human needs assessment showed affordable housing as the No. 1 issue affecting Chittenden County, where the median sale price for a home this year was $275,750, according to Hickok & Boardman Realty’s most recent market report.

Essex hasn’t closely studied affordable housing in over 25 years, dating back to a report by the Affordable Housing Task Force in 1990. Though no longer active, the group concluded the only way affordable housing will be created is through cooperative efforts between the town and developers.

That’s where Habitat steps in, selling houses at cost, or at about half the market rate for an identical home. It does so by partnering with local businesses that offer significant discounts and sourcing most of the construction, with an average project seeing upward of 300 volunteers, Stevens said.

The prospect of a $20,000 down payment isn’t realistic for families making near minimum wage, and coupled with exuberant rent prices around the county, affordable housing can seem unattainable, Stevens said.

With Habitat, families can purchase the homes with a 25- to 30-year, no-interest loan with no money down. Those payments are then used to construct more homes.

A volunteer-based family selection committee will pour over applications before choosing four families for the Essex location. Stevens expects an informational meeting to take place soon, where interested families can attend and begin applying.

Families qualify if they make less than 60 percent of the median household income, currently about $50,000 for a family of four, yet have a stable income to pay for a mortgage. They must also demonstrate a need for the home, for reasons like living in crowded or unsafe environment.

Additionally, they’re required to perform 400 hours of “sweat equity,” like helping with their own home, on other construction projects or working shifts at ReStore, a Habitat-owned resale shop.

Stevens, who’s been with Habitat for four years, believes many people don’t realize the poor housing environments that exist around Chittenden County.

She recalled one recent family who was living in a 45-year-old mobile home with mold and little insulation, and said the need for affordable housing isn’t going away.   

“When you own a house, you’re immediately a part of a community,” she said.

Habitat’s Chittenden County affiliate is one of seven in Vermont, all part of a global nonprofit that’s built more than 600,000 homes, sheltering more than 3 million people worldwide. The local chapter has built more than 60 homes in Chittenden County.

Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity raises all its funds locally, Stevens said, and is excited to break ground in Essex, where a number of donors and volunteers live.

Selectman Andy Watts reached out to Habitat after the town’s 2016 plan cited a goal of establishing a partnership with affordable housing organizations.

Since 1986, the town has allotted 1 percent of its annual budget toward human services funding. This year’s total was $126,000. Habitat initially questioned the appropriateness of requesting funding, fearing Essex’s high property value would prevent them from purchasing any land, Watts said.

But Watts suggested the organization consider its Williston ReStore location as a contribution to Essex. As luck would have it, the property hit the market soon after, and Habitat jumped at the chance, Stevens said.

“I am thrilled to pieces,” Watts said. “In fact, I’m going to encourage them to ask for more money next year.”