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Co-op proposes a shared solution

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 8/29/2022 9:39:46 PM
Modified: 8/29/2022 9:39:34 PM

SOUTH ROYALTON — Livable Real Estate Cooperative’s co-founders spoke to a group of community members, predominantly from the Royalton area, at BALE in South Royalton Wednesday evening about their effort to address the ongoing housing affordability problem in the Upper Valley.

The community-centered model laid out by Conicia Jackson, of Lyme, and Nick Clark, of Thetford, aims to assist both existing homeowners and renters by leveraging assets within the community. It focuses on adding accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, to existing property and purchsing real estate.

An ADU is a small unit near or adjacent to a single family home. Livable, as the developer, can assist homeowners with zoning, permits and construction.

“We’re not traditional developers in a sense,” Jackson told the crowd. “We’re looking at it from a standpoint of what does the community really need? ADUs are critical because (they) can really solve an immediate need.”

Livable, which was founded last year, also is different from a traditional developer because it is a cooperative. Community members can purchase a membership for $50.

“We are a real estate developer, owned by the community,” Clark said, adding that “Our priorities are where our members say our priorities are.”

Clark said he had an “aha moment” while serving on the Thetford Selectboard and working, to no avail, to develop just a handful of units on town-owned land, with continual issues of water and septic for the units. He said he realized a “municipality is not going to be a real estate developer” and he began asking himself who would own the units and who would manage them. 

He was serving on the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society board with Jackson when the two began talking about housing development through a cooperative model.

Jackson, originally from East St. Louis, Ill., an area she describes as an underserved community, where even as a young child she asked herself, “who is coming to fix this?” As a student at Vermont Law School, Jackson focused heavily on housing, real estate and land use law. Additionally, she worked with NeighborWorks in Rutland, an organization dedicated to creating stable, safe and efficient housing. 

Jackson and Clark found that homeowners often lack sufficient knowledge of zoning, permitting, construction and tenant laws when trying to develop a unit in their home. To overcome these barriers, Livable functions as the developer, general contractor, property developer and manager. Homeowners hire Livable to develop their  property. Livable can also help owners apply for and access grant money to renovate their homes to support an ADU through Vermont Housing Improvement Program funding. VHIP is a program run by the state of Vermont to help rental property owners cover renovation costs, thereby maximizing the availability of safe rental properties.  

An obstacle Livable has encountered so far in developing new housing units is accessing professional tradespeople to do the work. 

“We hear a lot about, we need people to go into the trades, we don’t hear a lot about there aren’t people here to go into the trades because they can’t afford to live here,” Clark said. “We have this Catch-22 where we need these people but they can’t live here to be those people. It makes it seem all the more dire.” 

Livable points to housing as a root of several intersecting issues including employee retention in local businesses as well as mental health. 

“We’re in a crisis here now,” Jackson said. “It’s always been an issue but we’re at the point where it’s exacerbated, we can’t go any further and so I think we really need to start thinking about novel solutions.”

In addition to ADUs, a solution Livable is working toward is a contract to buy five units in East Thetford adjacent to Wing’s Market. To do so, Livable is working with a lender, Cooperative Fund of the Northeast, which provides commercial loans and helps nonprofits and co-ops, Clark said. 

“The biggest thing we need right now is members,” he said. “Our lender is mission-driven, they support cooperatives, cooperatives are owned by members, they get excited when they see community support and community support is demonstrated by number of members.” 

Jennifer Barker, a South Royalton resident and employee at the South Royalton Health Center, welcomed Livable’s efforts. 

“It’s been very important to me in watching and learning about the needs of the community in the last seven years … how a lot of people who are in housing now know that they can’t make moves because there aren’t many places available so they feel confined to what they’re dealing with,” she said. “I am hopeful about the project.” 

Laura Koes can be reached at laurakoesjournalism@gmail.com.




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