By Adam Federman, VTDigger.org
RUTLAND — Denise Thompson and her family are the last remaining tenants in three properties that were seized at the start of the month as part of a civil forfeiture case that will see the homes turned over to a nonprofit devoted to community redevelopment.
Thompson was given an extra week to try to find housing, but as of Friday morning, Oct. 7, she said she was still waiting to hear from the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation about a possible apartment. Thompson and her two teenage sons have lived at 116 Park Ave. in Rutland for three years, and she said she first got notice in early September that they’d have to leave.
“It’s not the best place,” Thompson said, standing in the doorway of her second-story apartment. “But it’s a place to live.”
U.S. Attorney Eric Miller said tenants were first notified in mid-2015 that they would have to vacate.
Jason Bruno, who lived in a ground floor apartment for five years, said he and his girlfriend paid rent every month to the owners. One day, he said, they went to deposit a check into the owners’ account and learned the bank had frozen it. Since then, according to Bruno, they’ve been putting their rent money into an escrow account.
Bruno, who has two dogs and a criminal record for a drug possession charge over 15 years ago, said he’s had trouble finding landlords who will rent to him even though he and his girlfriend are financially solvent. Instead he purchased a recreational vehicle for $2,200 and has made arrangements with a friend to keep it in a nearby lot. “I bought this to make sure I have a roof over my head,” Bruno said. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
In early August the Homeless Prevention Center reached out to tenants in the Park Avenue properties to provide assistance and resources for transitional housing. According to Deborah Hall, the center’s executive director, they heard back from only a few of the renters. Bruno said he appreciated the effort but that it amounted to too little, too late.
“They do the same thing we do,” Bruno said. “Make phone calls.”
The Park Avenue properties were identified as being at the center of drug-related activity going back to 2011, according to court documents. Through the use of undercover informants, a number of high-profile arrests were made in 2013 and 2014. The complaint for civil forfeiture was filed in early 2015.
The buildings are in poor condition. As part of a larger $1.25 million grant, NeighborWorks of Western Vermont will restore the properties and eventually sell them to low-income families. The affordable housing group is restoring four other homes in the neighborhood.
Gregg Over, project manager for NeighborWorks, said the Park Avenue properties are in worse shape than most and will require extensive rehabilitation.
The house at 114 Park Ave. has been vacant since last year when the boiler stopped working and the tenants fled. A recent tour with Over revealed just what the group is up against.
The ground floor was nearly impassable, strewn with clothing-filled garbage bags, food scraps, cigarette butts, toys, broken glass and debris. The upstairs units were more orderly but contained pill bottles, furniture and personal belongings.
The home at 117 Park Ave., on the opposite side of the street, is no better off, according to a mail carrier, who said the last time he peered inside there was trash everywhere.
But Over, who had a career in construction before joining NeighborWorks, is unfazed by the condition of the buildings. He said that as soon as the U.S. Marshals turn the properties over to the city and they’re transferred to NeighborWorks, the group can begin the long process of clearing them out and rehabilitating them. According to Over, the group can rehab two or three properties a year.
Nearby at 59 Baxter St., head of the NeighborWorks building team, Morgan Overable, was putting the finishing touches on the group’s second renovation.
In December the two-story home was lifted up on steel beams and temporarily moved into the backyard. The old foundation was dug up and the house repositioned. NeighborWorks has completely redone the interior, including all plumbing and electrical work.
Crime is still an issue in the neighborhood. Two weekends ago the 59 Baxter St. home was broken into and many of Overable’s tools were taken. “Everything was stolen,” she said. “All the big-ticket tools.”
But through a tip from someone at the nearby corner store and connections with Project Vision, Rutland’s community policing initiative, a suspect was apprehended and the tools returned.
The 59 Baxter St. home will be ready for sale soon. NeighborWorks has been renovating it since May.
The group has also overseen the demolition of four homes that Over said were some of the neighborhood’s most blighted structures. The sites have been turned into green space, including a city park.
Over said he hopes the homes the group is renovating will serve as models for other residents and property owners in the city.
“We’re trying to set a spark,” Over said. “Where people take some pride and reinvest in their properties. That’s the whole philosophy behind our grant.”
Photo courtesy of NeighborWorks of Western Vermont
The house at 114 Park Ave. in Rutland sits vacant, left impassable by former tenants.