Whitney Hill ownership changing

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

New ownership is in the offing for Williston’s oldest senior apartment complex.

Whitney Hill Homestead is currently owned by a partnership formed when the 44-unit complex was built in the early 1990s. The partnership includes Housing Vermont, a statewide organization, and Williston Elder Housing, a community-based nonprofit.

But now that partnership is in the process of transferring ownership to Cathedral Square Corp., a Burlington-based nonprofit that manages and develops affordable housing throughout Vermont. Cathedral Square has overseen the day-to-day management of Whitney Hill since it was built.

In a letter to the town, Kenn Sassorossi, president of Williston Elder Housing, said Cathedral Square would be the ideal owner.

“We want to assure you that Whitney Hill will remain an affordable housing resource,” Sassorossi wrote. “The affordability restrictions put in place by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency and the Vermont Housing Conservation Board will remain in effect. More importantly, the nonprofit Cathedral Square Corporation is in the best position to operate Whitney Hill – not just to comply with the rent and occupancy requirements – but also meet the needs of our seniors.”

Williston Elder Housing considered becoming the sole owner of Whitney Hill, Sassorossi said in an interview. But the organization concluded residents would be better served by Cathedral Square because it has the financial resources and expertise to operate the complex.

“Our hearts said yes but our heads said no,” he said.

The sale will simplify ownership and allow debt on the project to be refinanced at a lower interest rate, Sassorossi said. It will also provide more money for upkeep.

Williston Elder Housing always contemplated eventually selling the complex, he said. When Whitney Hill was built, Merchants Bank invested in the project and received tax credits under a federal low-income housing program. The bank has now met the program’s obligations, clearing the way for a sale.

Cathedral Square Corp. also manages Eagle Crest and Falcon Manor, two newer senior apartments complexes in Williston. Representatives from the nonprofit could not be reached for comment.

A task force from Williston Federated Church explored ways to bring affordable senior housing to town in the 1980s. Whitney Hill Homestead resulted from the group’s efforts.

The complex, the first of its kind in Williston, is an independent living facility exclusively for people 55 and older. Apartments have one or two bedrooms and rent for between $572 and $895 per month.

Twenty-nine of the units rent for the lower amount and fit the official definition of affordable housing, Sassorossi said. Those units will continue to be affordable, he said, most into perpetuity.

Whitney Hill, located off U.S. 2 in Williston Village, was designed to mimic an extended farmhouse, with porches, courtyards and common areas. Most apartments have outside entrances that face open spaces. The complex offers a variety of recreational, cultural and social activities.

The announcement of Cathedral Square’s pending acquisition of Whitney Hill came as the housing development celebrated its 15th anniversary on Friday. The original residents – 10 are still there – were recognized during the event.

Among them was Dot Howe. In an interview Monday, Howe said she enjoys the atmosphere of Whitney Hill, which offers the camaraderie of a relatively small number of residents and the privacy of a rural setting.

“It’s just a nice place to be,” Howe said. “As long as you can drive, you can go anywhere.”

Sassorossi said tenants will see no change as a result of the ownership transfer, noting that most know of Cathedral Square through its onsite property manager.

“From the residents’ perspective it will be a seamless transition,” he said.

The sale was originally slated to be completed next month. But problems with renewing a state stormwater discharge permit will delay the closing, Sassorossi said. He now expects the sale to be completed by the end of 2007.