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Jim Kenyon: In Norwich, They Can Afford to Wait

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, April 07, 2018

It’s been 25 years since the last — and by the way, only — affordable housing development for working-class families was built in Norwich. It’s been 40 years since the town constructed its only affordable housing complex for seniors.

One thing Norwich doesn’t have a shortage of: excuses.

Land is too costly. Zoning regulations are too restrictive. The town’s rural character is too precious.

Over the years, several projects have been proposed, but all failed to get off the drawing board.

So forgive me for not immediately jumping on the latest bandwagon to make Norwich a more inclusive — and a less gated — place to live.

The Norwich Affordable Housing Inc. Advisory Committee is a newly formed private group that drew 30 residents to its inaugural meeting at Tracy Hall on Wednesday.

I wasn’t surprised by the solid turnout. A lot of Norwich residents want to be viewed as good liberals committed to promoting affordable housing within their community.

They live in one of Vermont’s wealthiest enclaves ($126,875 median household income in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), but their beloved community has done a poor job of trying to improve economic diversity.

At the start of Wednesday’s two-hour meeting, Stuart Richards, the group’s organizer, announced that “our goal is to create small-scale affordable housing that is consistent to what we currently have in town.”

Starlake Lane, which is near the Thetford town line off Route 5, consists of 14 single-family homes. The downtown Norwich Senior Housing complex has 24 apartments.

Richards is an unlikely flag waver for the movement — if it can be called that. He’s a retired real estate developer — including an early project at the Killington ski resort — who some townspeople consider more of a hindrance than a help on the issue.

In the early 2000s, Richards served on the Norwich Affordable Housing Committee, a Selectboard-sanctioned body that determined only 2 percent of Norwich’s housing stock was affordable for a low-income household. The committee called for the construction of 105 units of housing for families earning $50,000 or so a year.

Richards took exception with the findings and issued his own report, arguing that Norwich had more affordable housing than the committee had identified.

He’s also been critical of the Norwich Planning Commission, of which he’s a former member. Richards and others have faulted the commission for not paying sufficient homage to — you guessed it — Norwich’s rural character when updating the Town Plan. A year ago, the commission proposed a high-density district that could potentially encourage environmentally-friendly development, including affordable housing, along Route 5.

Opponents created enough of a stir that the commission seems to have shelved the idea. Many of those same opponents were in the audience or sitting at the head table with Richards at Wednesday’s meeting.

Why had they come?

I’d like to think they had experienced something of an epiphany and recognized that affordable housing would bring more working families with young children into town. During the Town Plan debate last year, longtime resident Irv Thomae put it best when he said, “I don’t want to live in a museum where all I can see is beautiful houses.”

A 2012 state study put median home sales prices in Norwich at $382,000. I doubt it’s done anything but gone up since then.

I suspect some residents will take a wait-and-see approach with the new advisory committee. Is it serious about wanting to improve the town’s economic diversity through affordable housing? Or is it all just a smokescreen to thwart the Planning Commission and others who advocate affordable housing on a grander scale?

“We’re not into mega-developments that are going to change the character of the town dramatically,” Richards said over the phone on Friday. During the same conversation, he told me that he “grew up in an apartment in Queens. I get the affordable housing thing. I lived it.”

Richards is off to a strong start — signing up 22 volunteers to the committee, which since it’s not connected to any government bodies isn’t subject to the state’s open meeting and public records laws. Several of its members have the financial resources to write checks with lots of zeros. Not a bad thing when trying to get an affordable housing project off the ground.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Norwich Selectboard Chairman John Pepper took it all in from the back of the room.

“You can’t argue with the effort,” he told me.

The highlight of the meeting was a crash course in Affordable Housing 101 taught by Andrew Winter, executive director of the Twin Pines Housing Trust.

Twin Pines, which dates back to 1990 (Starlake was one of its first projects), is the go-to nonprofit organization on affordable housing in the Upper Valley. It builds and manages developments on both sides of the Connecticut.

Winter, who has a law degree and lives in Hanover, knew his audience.

Norwich, even with a majority of its 3,400 residents being good limousine liberals, is unlikely to support something along the lines of Parkhurst, the 18-unit project currently under construction in downtown Lebanon for “extremely low income” renters.

Winter talked more about Safford Commons, a collection of 10 buildings with 28 apartments on eight acres in Woodstock. The development, across from Woodstock Union High School, is a “mixed income community,” with rents ranging from about $600 to $1,000 a month.

“There is certainly a place in Norwich for something like that,” Winter told me later.

Safford Commons, a $9.5 million project, was not an easy sell. With some in Woodstock against the idea, it took years before ground was broken. Nine years to be exact.

By Norwich standards, that’s not a long time.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.