The Champlain Housing Trust is pursuing a $1.8 million project with the Vermont Foundation of Recovery that would convert a dozen Fort Ethan Allen apartments into housing for people in recovery.
The housing trust wants to renovate three buildings it owns on the Essex side of the fort – 1005, 1006 and 1007 Ethan Allen Ave. – and lease the updated space to VFOR, which would operate the apartments as “recovery homes” meant for people who have undergone treatment for substance use disorders.
VFOR, a nonprofit established in 2013, operates six other recovery homes in Vermont, including one in Essex Jct. The new project would let the foundation consolidate some of its Chittenden County presence and add 12 beds to its portfolio, according to executive director David Riegel, who explained partnerships like this allow his foundation to focus on people instead of being landlords.
“Over time, we figured out that we really want to spend our time with members,” Riegel said. “We really want to focus on the individuals that live in our homes and make sure we’re doing the best we can to create a safe, supportive, peer-to-peer [environment].”
Recovery homes provide sober-living settings for people to start rebuilding their lives and a chance to learn from each other when faced with challenges that may have previously caused them to turn to substances, Riegel said.
Individuals must commit to live in the homes for at least 90 days and attend recovery meetings for at least the first 30 days, after which they are expected to continue to attend weekly meetings. They are also expected to find work or volunteer opportunities, seek out a recovery mentor and attend mandatory “house meetings.”
“They’re getting the energy and positivity to be able to move forward, but they’re also getting constructive feedback from each other,” Riegel said. “It’s so much more effective to come from a peer than to come from somebody who hasn’t walked through it themselves.”
Much is still up in the air. The project relies almost exclusively on yet-to-be-awarded grants, starting with a $250,000 request to One Care Vermont and nearly $1.5 million combined between the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board and the Vermont Community Development Implementation program, all of which the trust expects to hear back about over the next few months.
The trust must also get some help from the town of Essex: Because VCDI grants are only available to municipalities, the trust has asked the town to serve as its applicant and pass the $650,000 in funding along, if approved, and the town would need to issue zoning and building permits. Essex would see some benefit from the project, as $50,000 of that grant would be used to make stormwater improvements at the site, and the project meshes well with the town’s housing needs assessment, with a current draft of that document identifying a need for more supportive housing.
Local officials say they are now working to better understand the project and its impact on the community. The selectboard has planned a public hearing for August 19.
Riegel said VFOR would likely move relocate of its other recovery homes in Burlington and South Burlington into the new space, allowing for more efficient oversight. The fort homes would host 32 beds: six for men, six for women and the rest spread across a mix of transitional apartments, which give people a chance to gain more independence while still remaining under the VFOR umbrella, Riegel said.
The director shared excitement over the prospect of growing VFOR’s transitional stock, noting the foundation wants to look into using these apartments to facilitate reunifications between parents in recovery and their children.
“When somebody is in early recovery and they’re doing their best to rebuild their lives … in this extraordinarily comfortable and challenging time, to be able to have the hope that you’ll be able to get back together with your partner and your children is incredibly powerful,” Riegel said.
Transitional housing also allows people to begin to reconcile with family members who may have been hurt by their drug use, he said. “One of the things that we find is that bridges get burned through active substance use,” Riegel said. “Folks who are early in recovery, they’re not necessarily ready to go right back home. And their family members aren’t necessarily ready to have them home.”
News of the proposal arrives three years after the housing trust bought the properties as part of an 11-building purchase from the University of Vermont. UVM loaned the trust $200,000 as part of the nearly $4 million sale, and CHT now plans to ask the university to “leave behind” $100,000 of the initial loan as an additional deferred loan, according to the trust’s director of real estate development, Amy Demetrowitz.
The 2016 transaction added 31 apartments to CHT’s housing assets, 19 of which the trust sold off as affordable condos. The rest have remained for-rent apartments.
If the project takes off, Demetrowitz said residents living in these apartments will be forced to relocate. They will have some help: Because the project uses federal funds, CHT must provide residents “substantial” notice and compensate them for any moving expenses, including new security deposits, Demetrowitz said.
She estimated the earliest residents would need to move is February, and she stressed the displaced residents will be first in line for any of CHT’s housing units, which include other apartments in the fort. Demetrowitz said CHT has notified the residents about the project and will be hosting an informational meeting Friday evening to answer their questions.
The potential partnership with VFOR would allow the trust to add recovery housing into its constantly expanding portfolio. CHT would continue to own and manage the buildings under a master lease in an agreement that the foundation says would help save it close to $150,000 annually.
And for VFOR, the project represents a vital next step, with Riegel pointing to a study published by Downstreet Housing in March that found most Vermont communities have little to no recovery housing options. Motivated to meet that need, Riegel said the only way VFOR can expand without dramatically increasing donations will be by cutting costs and finding efficiencies.
“This project allows us to do that,” he said.
The Champlain Housing Trust will host an informational meeting on Friday, 5:30 p.m. in the Hall of Fame Room at the Ross Sports Center at St. Michael’s College. The Essex selectboard will then host a public hearing August 19 in the Essex High School cafeteria.