Editorial: Plight of unhoused divides Hartford

  • A rendering shows a proposed 18-unit Twin Pines Housing apartment building, center, and a new structure for the Haven's overnight shelter and administrative offices, right, on property subdivided from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, left, on Hartford Avenue in White River Junction, Vt. The plans for the buildings' facades have not been finalized. (Courtesy Studio Nexus)

Published: 5/9/2022 10:23:02 AM
Modified: 5/9/2022 10:23:01 AM

When a housing project runs into trouble, opposition generally is focused on two things: where it would be built, and who would live in it. Naturally, concern is generally strongest among the neighbors who live closest to the site and would be most affected. Sometimes, though, proposals have broader implications for the community as a whole, as does one now pending before the Hartford Planning Commission and the town’s Zoning Board.

The project, proposed by the nonprofit Twin Pines Housing Trust, would locate 18 one-bedroom, low-income apartments in a three-story building on land to be acquired from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, adjacent to the Upper Valley Haven’s campus along Route 5 in the Taft’s Flat section of town.

The idea is pretty simple: to provide permanent housing for some of the town’s chronically homeless population as they stabilize their lives and try to get back on their feet. Residents of the complex, open to people of both sexes, would be required to sign a one-year lease and pay 30% of their income in rent, while being offered a broad array of support services by the Haven, which plans to construct a new building nearby partly to provide that access. Residents would be subject to background checks; those convicted of sex offenses, drug trafficking or violent crimes would be ineligible to live there.

Neighbors object to the project’s aesthetics and density; contend that it is out of sync with the residential character of the area; and raise concerns about safety. The latter center on assertions that schoolchildren are already experiencing harassment from the homeless, presumably those staying at the Haven. Those particular claims certainly require a response from the Haven, Hartford police and the schools nearby.

As suggested above, it appears to us that opposition boils down mostly to who would be housed in the apartments. The neighbors, and at least a vocal minority of other town residents, feel that Hartford and Lebanon have done more than their fair share when it comes to hosting affordable housing, and that wealthier neighboring communities to the north should start doing their part to address the problem.

That frustration is reasonable and understandable, but not actionable. Those more affluent communities are always happy to do their bit so long as affordable housing — to say nothing of housing for the homeless — fits in seamlessly with the gracious single-family homes that line their streets; is not in visible proximity to their town’s gateway; has a compact footprint but low density; is “green” without being encumbered by unsightly solar panels; doesn’t impinge on prime agricultural land; is close to town services but won’t be a burden on them; and won’t add traffic congestion. In other words, virtually never.

It should be noted that there are also Hartford residents who favor the Twin Pines proposal. At a hearing late last month, the Planning Commission heard not only from opponents but also from people who argued that the project would address pressing issues in the community as well as benefit the neighborhood.

The reality is that Hartford has a relatively large homeless population, and most likely it is not going away, despite the best efforts of some in town to roust them from their campsites and homemade shelters through zoning restrictions and town enforcement actions. Hartford is home to the social services, public transportation and municipal infrastructure needed to assist the unfortunate.

Last fall, as the town was clearing out homeless encampments before winter, one town resident told our colleague Jim Kenyon, “I’m not against homeless people. Some of them are really struggling. But some are abusing the system. Why are they not trying to get themselves in a position to get jobs and an apartment?”

That would seem to be an urgent question that Twin Pines and the Haven are trying to answer with their interrelated proposals. Maybe there are better answers. We haven’t heard one yet.

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