A 14-unit affordable housing project planned for Maple Street in Stowe received widespread support from people in the public and private sector as the town signed off on a pass-through grant for the project.

The grant, for up to $500,000, requires the town’s blessing, but that is the extent of the town’s involvement in the $5.6 million project. Still, the grant requires a public hearing before the selectboard, which was held Monday.

The town received more than two dozen letters of support for the project, from public bodies, private businesses and individuals.

“Housing is hard to find, and even harder to afford,” states a letter from the Stowe Planning Commission. “The lack of workforce and affordable housing is possibly one of the biggest current potential threats to our resort community.”

A letter from the Alchemist Foundation read, “Our future depends on helping our young folks feel at home, and this project is part of that future.”

Corey Perpall, the chair of the board for Lamoille Community House, said this is a “critical phase” of Vermont’s housing crisis: “If we are to successfully close the housing gaps and solve our communities’ housing challenges, we must keep our foot on the gas.”

Katrina Veerman, owner of PK Coffee, said rents have gone up even as rental stock has gone down as property owners realize they can make more money on term rentals, such as Airbnb. Veerman said it is “untenable” that her employees must drive to work from Northfield, Waitsfield, Johnson and Colchester.

Folks from the social services and faith-based and sector noted that homelessness is real in Stowe, with many people being housed in the Golden Eagle Resort during the pandemic, and many other people receiving help through Meals on Wheels or other organizations.

Emily Rosenbaum, a Stowe resident and project director for the county Working Communities Challenge, said housing is “part and parcel” of the challenge for employers to find employees.

“I usually think of child care, housing and transportation as the tripart key to employment,” Rosenbaum said. “Wages cannot keep pace with the cost of rent, which is why we need Lamoille Housing Partnership to do this work.”

Leslie Whitaker, a resident of Sylvan Woods, the first affordable housing cluster that Lamoille Housing Partnership created in Stowe, said she has been part of the Sylvan Woods community since 2007, first as a renter and then as a homeowner.

“If not for Lamoille Housing Partnership and this amazing neighborhood, I am certain I would not be a homeowner today and my children would have grown up in multiple apartments in order for me to make ends meet,” Whitaker wrote. “Instead, this neighborhood has given my family, as well as all the other families in this neighborhood, a place to call home.”

To read more of the 25 letters of support, visit the town website, townofstowevt.org.

Concerns about price, ‘affordable’ tag

The partnership has moved faster than usual on this project since the buildings had already gone through the local permitting process. Construction is expected to wrap up by December when the partnership will receive a “turnkey” property that it can start filling.

In contrast, the Morrisville project broke ground earlier this summer after two years of “pre-development,” Lovinsky said.

Town Manager Charles Safford said the town is basically just a pass-through for the money, and it doesn’t create any debt for the town. The only stipulation is that towns can only apply to the Vermont Community Development Program for one type of project — planning grants, public facility projects, accessibility modifications, affordable housing, etc. — during the state program’s current round of funding. The program holds three such rounds each year and Stowe hasn’t been asked to apply for such funding by anyone else this round.

After discussing the project for more than an hour, the selectboard voted unanimously Monday to sign off on the $500,000 grant. Despite that, there were some concerns Monday about the project.

Selectboard chair Billy Adams said he was just wanting to make sure Lamoille Housing Partnership was spending it $5.6 million wisely.

Adams asked why three of the 14 apartments will be rented at the market rate. Partnership executive director Jim Lovinsky said that’s partly because of the organization’s funding — Lamoille Housing doesn’t take a profit, but part of the reason it can continue to offer affordable rents is it keeps its debt load low — and partly to create socioeconomic diversity in the apartments.

He said an old federal Housing and Urban Development model was to build high rises in cities, which ultimately led to slums.

“We do a variety and we do it purposely so that there’s a range of folks who can live there,” he said, adding it prevents creating “pockets of poverty” where only people with lower incomes live.

Adams and fellow board member Jo Sabel Courtney also worried that tenants may try to sublet the apartments and make some money off them.

“That’s kind of prime Airbnb space along there,” Courtney said.

Lovinsky said that people on the lease are required to live there, and property managers come by frequently to make sure things are tip top. Plus, if tenants are in income-based rentals, they undergo annual income checks, he said.

Adams and board member Nick Donza, both builders and developers, said they were shocked at the cost per unit. Donza noted the $5.6 million price tag boils down to $350,000 per unit, too expensive for one of 14 apartments right up against a busy road, especially when a developer is seeking public money for that project.

“I’m simply saying that, at $350,000 a unit with the magnitude of need that’s out there, we need to get more creative,” Donza said.

Adams echoed that, saying, “When I look at this breakdown, I question what your guys’ process is, to make sure that you’re not paying more than what you need to.”

Lovinsky said there are “a lot of hoops” to jump through to create affordable housing that is perpetually affordable — a key part of Lamoille Housing’s mission — as opposed to creating houses and apartments to make a profit off them, either through rent or sales.

“If it were easy, what we’re doing, then all developers would be doing it,” he said. “It’s not easy to do.”

Some neighbors in the nearby Hillcrest neighborhood — situated a ways behind the properties along Maple Street — were worried that the word affordable housing would carry a negative connotation that could drive down nearby property values or that tenants might trespass on their properties.

Safford also said the town doesn’t get a say in who buys, rents or lives in the property. Somebody will, though.

“The other thing to remember is the development review board has already permitted this project for 14 units, and those 14 units will occur, regardless of whether they’re privately owned or Lamoille County Housing owns this property,” Safford said.

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