Interfaith group trying to ease shortage of affordable housing

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

A newly formed Williston interfaith group plans to pursue the development of not-for-profit affordable housing projects in town.

The Williston Interfaith/Civic Task Force on Affordable Housing remains in its formative stages, according to Ken Stone, a member of the group. He said the group hopes to ultimately chip away at the growing shortage of affordable housing in Williston.

The group will be modeled after the Shelburne Interfaith Affordable Housing Committee, a nonprofit partnership of three churches that helped produce 20 new affordable rental units in Shelburne last year. The Shelburne coalition worked with the Lake Champlain Housing Development Corp. on the $3.6 million project, which was funded with a variety of grants and loans.

“We’d like to do something similar to what they did in Shelburne,” Stone said. “We want to get as many churches as possible involved, include some civic groups, maybe some local builders and developers, and see if we can find some land and build some units.”

The Williston interfaith group will hold an open meeting this Monday at 7 a.m. at Town Hall for members of the public interested in the issue. Stone said the group so far includes parishioners from Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church and Williston Federated Church. He said the group hopes that the coalition will eventually include representatives from every church in town.

“In other communities, churches have gotten behind this sort of effort and been very successful,” Stone said. “Churches can be a very powerful force to get something done. Hopefully, they can be here, too.”

Town Planner Lee Nellis released a report last month that painted a grim picture of the affordable housing market in Williston. The Selectboard and Planning Commission are weighing possible changes to the town’s subdivision and sewer regulations that could encourage development of more affordable housing.

As a way of raising public awareness, the Williston Interfaith/Civic Task Force hosted a forum last week on the issues surrounding housing in Vermont. The panel included Rosalyn Graham of the Shelburne Interfaith Affordable Housing Committee, John Powell of the Lake Champlain Housing Development Corporation, Dave Mullin of Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity, Woodstock Police Chief Byron Kelly and John Fairbanks of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

(Graham is a freelance writer who covers the Champlain Valley Union High School Board for the Williston Observer and other newspapers.)

Panel members agreed the current supply of affordable housing in Chittenden County had produced a poor climate for most homebuyers. Stone said the forum, which drew a crowd of about 40 people, helped potential members of the interfaith group understand the challenges associated with the subject.

“We figured the best place to start was to get educated,” Stone said.

During the forum, Graham detailed the formation of the Shelburne interfaith group in 1999 and its subsequent efforts. Graham said the group started as a committee at the Shelburne United Methodist Church that contributed to various projects around the county, before deciding to expand to include the Catholic and Episcopal churches and to focus on improving affordable housing in Shelburne.

The group initially developed an 18-unit project proposal to be located on town-owned land in 2000, but the project required voter approval and was turned down. According to Graham, the defeat could partly be traced to biases among residents about the people who would live in the units.

However, the group soon received a very inexpensive lease on a four-acre parcel of land that was ideal for modest residential construction. The 18 units — nine semi-detached buildings surrounding a central green — opened last year. Two more units were added in the central part of Shelburne as part of the renovation of an old town building that was tentatively slated for demolition.

Graham said there were more than 200 applications for the 20 new units.

Graham said the Shelburne group benefited from support from the town manager and Selectboard, particularly when it, along with the Lake Champlain Housing Development Corp., sought grants to fund the construction.

The Shelburne landowner who provided the inexpensive lease for the property also made a critical contribution, Graham said, given the current land values.

Stone said the Williston interfaith group has already begun to research potential parcels for a project in town. He said the group does not plan to seek any municipal funding.

“We have looked at a number of different land parcels that seem possible,” Stone said. “We can’t say who or where. There’s nothing concrete, but there are some possibilities.”

Some at the forum last week said that a Williston interfaith group would only be able to make a modest dent in the large affordable housing shortage. However, Stone said, that is not an argument for sitting still.

“Because it is such a wide-ranging problem, we have no illusions that we’re going to solve everything, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything,” Stone said.