Many areas are experiencing housing shortages right now, but few are as challenged as northeast Vermont, known as the Northeast Kingdom. A search for short-term or rental housing turns up nothing. No affordable housing, no market housing. Nothing.
RuralEdge serves the Northeast Kingdom, the three lowest-income and most-rural counties in Vermont. Serving families and seniors across 2,000 square miles, RuralEdge is facing three community crises — addiction, food insecurity, and local opposition to building more affordable homes. And all of this was made much worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re focused on production and how to get families into homes, along with building and strengthening relationships with our social service providers,” said RuralEdge Executive Director Patrick Shattuck. “Being able to constantly meet the demand is a challenge, especially in times of crisis like COVID.”
The state’s low COVID-19 infection rates lured out-of-staters to buy up properties in cash sales, with many homes seeing multiple offers on day one. Recent code enforcement initiatives have required improvements that price families out of once-affordable units. The shortage means hospitals can’t recruit doctors and nurses because they can’t find homes. The need for addiction services puts more pressure on limited housing stock, but the pandemic and social distancing means even more homes are needed for service providers. The tourism jobs lost in 2020 mean more families are struggling with necessities. RuralEdge sees this every day, with 1,900 families on a waiting list for its 700 rentals. While they are working to bring new homes online, others are simply not turning over.
Although COVID relief efforts brought a brief flurry of funding, now it can be difficult to find the staff, contractors, and supplies to move projects forward. That has not stopped RuralEdge from pushing on with their pipeline:
- New Avenue, 40 apartments in St. Johnsbury with rental assistance and nine apartments set aside for those moving from homelessness. RuralEdge will be onsite with its Support and Services at Home (SASH) Program. This is a unique public/private partnership as the building’s commercial space, vacant for a decade, iwas condominiumized and purchased by local investors to rehabilitate this fantastic anchor structure. Construction is slated to finish in September.
- Burkeland Lane preserves 15 subsidized multi-generational apartments in a recreational tourism area in high-demand that has placed extreme pressure on the market, with local rentals converted to short-term. RuralEdge will add eight new affordable apartments with rental subsidy to the site. Construction will begin in July.
- RuralEdge purchased the combined four parcels, three of which had historic buildings destroyed by a fire in 2009, and began the predevelopment of Packard Court. HUD 202 funding opportunities means they can pivot to senior housing, using the predevelopment work already completed. In early April 2021, Governor Phil Scott included Packard Court as an example of high-quality, shovel-ready projects that could be developed in the very near future with legislative approval of his latest funding recommendation.
In addition to providing new homes, RuralEdge is increasing resident services for seniors and people working to stay sober. Its SASH program uses state funding for a wide array of in-home services for more than 500 seniors and disabled residents. Services like overnight nursing, diabetes education, and balance clinics help keep residents active, healthy and engaged in their community, a significant challenge for seniors in rural areas.
Sobriety isn’t the only challenge many RuralEdge residents are facing. Food security is also a concern. The “PopUps of Hope” program supported small groups of residents to install raised garden beds at their developments. These seeds have grown into larger community gardens with such success that RualEdge is planning to include them in all future developments.
“Residents really took ownership,” Shattuck said. “It’s really fun to see residents pick their space and see their gardens thrive.” At their largest development, the 48-apartment Mountain View Housing, they provide a food shelf to share produce with residents, half of whom come from homelessness.
After NeighborWorks America rated the organization “vulnerable” in 2019, RuralEdge reinvented and rebuilt themselves. The resulting shifts in leadership and goals earned them a “strong” rating last month. They are now focused on new housing production and sustainable growth.
“Because we’re so rural, we tend to know residents really well, we know lots of the stories of the residents. That’s how you know you’ve really impacted people: when you see their tenure, the changes they make in their lives. They share that with you, and cite the housing as the reason for their success,” Shattuck said.