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Jim Kenyon: Can the Upper Valley revamp old hotels to house the homeless?

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 2/13/2021 10:14:00 PM
Modified: 2/13/2021 10:13:57 PM

Until I heard about what was happening with a vintage 1960s motel in the village of West Brattleboro, Vt., I didn’t think it was possible for anything remotely good to come out of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dalem’s Chalet, with its Bavarian alpine lodge motif, right down to the dining room’s barn beams, was once a “happening place,” as one area resident put it. Local folklore has it that rock star Linda Rondstadt and CBS News’ Charles Kuralt, of On the Road fame, were among the Chalet’s guests. (Not in the same room, mind you.)

But like many roadside motels that saw their fortunes altered by the advent of Vermont’s interstate highways, Dalem’s Chalet, named after its German immigrant owners, had fallen into disrepair. People down on their luck turned to the Route 9 motel, where rooms could be rented by the week or month.

In September, with no end to the coronavirus in sight, Dalem’s Chalet got new owners who immediately embarked on a $1 million renovation project. The motel was converted into 36 permanent apartments mostly for people who have experienced homelessness. Monthly rents fall in the $550 to $750 range, with tenants putting up 30% of their income and government subsidies paying the rest.

The project is the brainchild of Groundworks Collaborative (Brattleboro’s version of the Upper Valley Haven) and the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust.

The cost of renovations plus the purchase price of nearly $920,000 was covered by federal COVID-19 relief funds. Groundworks and the housing trust tapped into $33 million that Vermont — under the CARES Act approved by Congress last March — earmarked for initiatives to address homelessness.

With the pandemic shining a national spotlight on homelessness, “unprecedented financial resources” have become available, Josh Davis, the Groundworks’ executive director, told me.

With that in mind: Could the West Brattleboro project be replicated in the Upper Valley?

Due in no small part to a shortage of affordable housing, homelessness is a chronic problem in the Upper Valley. It also has its share of aging motels.

And like Brattleboro, we have two community-minded organizations with the know-how to pull off major undertakings.

The Upper Valley Haven and Twin Pines Housing Trust have teamed up before. In 2018, they transformed a rickety three-story building on Parkhurst Street in downtown Lebanon into 18 affordable one-bedroom apartments. An early tenant was a man who had been living in his car in the Walmart parking lot on Route 12A.

When Michael Redmond, the Haven’s executive director, and Andrew Winter, who runs Twin Pines, learned last spring that Vermont was planning to devote a chunk of its $1.25 billion CARES Act allocation to curb homelessness, they started looking for properties to buy and renovate.

The Shady Lawn Motel on Maple Street in White River Junction was on their radar. But from what they could tell, the two-story motel, which dates back to the 1950s, looks more like a “tear-down than a rebuild,” said Redmond, whose organization runs homeless shelters for families and individuals in White River Junction.

The former Pine Crest Motel, another relic from the 1950s on North Hartland Road in Hartford, also came to mind. The motel, now called South on Five, has a dozen or so rooms that have been turned into efficiency apartments. According to Hartford property records, the motel sits on a 12-acre parcel, which I presume could be developed into additional affordable housing.

Last week, I talked with a woman outside the South on Five manager’s office who said that she’d give my business card to the owner. I didn’t hear back.

Winter and Redmond had a promising lead on a property in West Lebanon, but it didn’t pan out, they said. (New Hampshire has also set aside COVID-19 relief money for projects to reduce homelessness.)

With the way the federal relief package was set up, there was “really a narrow window to put a deal together,” Winter said.

Advocates for homeless people are hopeful the next round of COVID-19 relief funding, which is still being debated in Washington, will include additional money.

“We’re going to keep our eyes out,” Winter said. “We’re always looking for opportunities to transition people from shelters to permanent housing.”

The pandemic exacerbated an already-chronic problem. People who were couch-surfing or doubling up with family and friends suddenly found themselves on the street. Meanwhile, the Haven, Groundworks and other shelters have had to limit occupancy to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

As of last week, Vermont was providing so-called motel vouchers for nearly 2,800 people, including more than 400 children, who have been “experiencing homelessness” during the pandemic, according to the state’s Department for Children and Families. VtDigger recently reported that housing people in 70 motels and hotels around the state has cost roughly $4.5 million a month in federal money.

But motels are only a “stopgap” measure, said Davis, the Groundworks executive director. Along with “getting a roof” over people’s heads, social services are needed to address the problems that contributed to them becoming homeless in the first place, he added.

That’s where organizations such as Groundworks and the Haven come in. They arrange for mental health and substance use treatment. They help people find jobs.

At the Chalet, which once included a restaurant and kitchen, plans call for creating a space, where residents can get together for meals and exercise classes.

“We want to give people more than just a stable place to live,” said Elizabeth Bridgewater, executive director of the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust. “It’s very important to build community.”

It’s taken a deadly pandemic to make homelessness more of a national priority. But once the virus subsides?

“Unfortunately,” Groundworks’ Davis said, “our work will have to continue.”

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




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