By Tiffany Tan/VTDigger
A Rutland housing organization plans to build dozens of housing units at the former College of St. Joseph and possibly convert an existing campus building into a child care center.
The Housing Trust of Rutland County moved closer to implementing those plans last week, when it secured an option to buy the last available parcel of land at the defunct college. The 30-acre parcel, on the campus’s western portion, encompasses two historic buildings and three smaller ones.
The Housing Trust has until mid-March to make a purchase deal with Heritage Family Credit Union, which foreclosed on the college after it lost accreditation in 2019.
“This is one step of a thousand steps we need to take,” said Mary Cohen, the Housing Trust’s executive director. She declined to divulge the purchase price in the deal, first reported by the Rutland Herald.
With the lack of housing in Vermont reaching crisis levels, the nonprofit organization plans to put up two residential buildings at the shuttered college, with 60 total units of affordable and market-rate residences. The number of affordable housing units has not yet been determined.
“What we do know for sure is that it will be a mixed-income project,” Cohen said in an interview.
One idea, she said, is to build multifamily units near a wooded area with hiking trails. The Rutland Recreation Community Center, which moved to a building on the main campus in 2019, is currently maintaining some of the hiking trails.
This summer, Casella Waste Systems struck a deal to buy the main campus, where it plans to set up new offices, a training center and employee housing.
Another idea of the Housing Trust — which could address a similarly pressing need in the state — is to open a child care center in what’s known as the carriage house. It’s among the 19th-century buildings in a section of the campus that used to be the Clementwood estate, once home to Rutland’s prominent Clement family and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Cohen said Clementwood mansion, the former family residence, could also be transformed into a venue for events such as concerts and parties. The home was constructed around 1860 in the Italian villa architectural style and is associated with the early development of Rutland’s marble industry.
Since the Housing Trust’s expertise is in housing rather than child care or events, Cohen said another entity would run those planned facilities.
While the Housing Trust is conducting due diligence on its potential real estate purchase, Cohen said the organization will start raising venture equity capital of $1 million. The money would go toward predevelopment work on the property, such as feasibility studies on environmental matters and historical conservation.
The Housing Trust also would be applying for funding, including government grants. “We’re taking one step at a time and figuring out what we need,” Cohen said.
The Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, which includes the Housing Trust of Rutland County, said the organization’s plans are significant, given the “severe shortage” of housing in the state, particularly for people with low to moderate incomes.
According to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a person in Vermont needs to earn at least $23.40 an hour to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment without spending more than 30% of their income on housing.
“Most service-sector workers make much less than that,” said Michelle Kersey, chair of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.
As of 2019, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 26% of renters in Vermont were spending 30-49% of their income on housing-related costs. Another 25% were spending at least 50% of their income on these expenses.
The rental vacancy rate statewide stood at 3.4%, down from 7% in 2010.
In Rutland County, the rental vacancy was at 3.9%, and 65% of the people in the workforce didn’t live in the town where they worked.
Kersey said increasing the supply of affordable housing is also key to solving Vermont’s workforce shortage.
State legislative leaders have already said housing should be at the top of the agenda when they reconvene in Montpelier next month.
The Rutland Regional Planning Commission said the Housing Trust of Rutland County’s plans at the former college will have multiple economic and social benefits. Besides enhancing the area’s workforce, it would grow Rutland’s grand list of taxable property and attract new residents who would help reverse decades of population decline in the county.
Redeveloping the former college campus “presents some challenges but many opportunities,” said Devon Neary, chair of the regional planning commission.
He said its location outside the city center means local leaders will need to offer alternative modes of transportation to meet increased demand, such as organizing public transit and ensuring bike-friendly routes.
But having the recreation community center, Casella corporate center and the Housing Trust’s new residential units in one area “has the potential to create an exciting new dynamic focused on community and economic development,” Neary said.
Heritage Family’s president and CEO, Matthew Levandowski, said a handful of other parties had been interested in the campus’s western portion but the credit union believed the Housing Trust would be the best fit for the property.
The Housing Trust’s presence on the site, he said, would enable the campus “to become a vibrant part of the community again.”