Thank you for your interest in and support of the Valley News. So far, we have raised 80% of the funds required to host journalists Claire Potter and Alex Driehaus for their one-year placements in the Upper Valley through Report for America, a national service program that boosts local news by harnessing community support.

Please consider donating to this effort.

Colonial Village Upgrade Planned

  • Charlotte Thurston waits for her laundry to dry while her great granddaughter Kailynn Kellogg, 7, rides her scooter around the Colonial Village court yard in Bradford, Vt., Thursday, August 4, 2016. Kellogg lives with Thurston in the subsidized housing complex. Thurston said she is hopeful that a planned renovation by the complex's owner, Downstreet, will address moisture and water problems in her lower level apartment that began two years ago and weren't fully fixed by previous owners. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • Ron Hodge, right, gets help moving a couch to his apartment at Colonial Village in Bradford, Vt. from Hunter Burns, left, of Bradford, Thursday, August 4, 2016. Residents of Colonial Village, a subsidized housing complex in Bradford, Vt., have concerns about long standing maintenance requests and uncertainty surrounding the schedule for renovations of the 21 units. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • ">

    Ernie Dunham, right, spends time in his Colonial Village apartment in Bradford, Vt., with his children Cayden, 5, middle, and Layla, 2, left, in the morning before his second shift job as a press man Thursday, August 4, 2016. Downstreet, the new owners of the subsidized housing complex, installed a radon mitigation system after low levels of radon were discovered in his building. Dunham said he has been making small repairs himself, like screwing together a broken kitchen drawer, in anticipation of a full renovation of the apartment. "You'll let them know and they'll either get back to you or they won't," said Dunham of the response to his maintenance requests. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Colonial Village resident Charlotte Thurston hangs out her laundry in the courtyard of the subsidized housing complex Thursday, August 4, 2016. The complex, spread over four addresses, was purchased recently by Downstreet, a Barre based non-profit, that is planning a $4.6 million renovation. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Colonial Village resident Charlotte Thurston hangs out her laundry in the court yard of the subsidized housing complex Thursday, August 4, 2016. The complex, spread over four addresses, was purchased recently by Downstreet, a Barre based company, that is planning a $5.3 million renovation. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/6/2016 11:03:06 PM
Modified: 8/8/2016 1:47:32 PM
Bradford, Vt. — The central Vermont nonprofit that last year purchased a subsidized housing project in the heart of Bradford now plans to spend $4.6 million to make the buildings safer and more energy-efficient.

Tenants of Colonial Village, many of whom moved in when the buildings were owned by George Huntington, a local contractor who died in 2009, welcomed the news, with some expressing hope that the upgrade will end what they described as years of living with mold, insect infestations and faulty appliances.

Residents said they have complained multiple times about some of the conditions, both before and after Downstreet Housing and Community Development, a Barre, Vt.-based nonprofit, purchased the properties in February 2015 for about $745,000.

Following an internal review, Downstreet administrators said, they were taking steps to address some of the problems. They said they had not heard of others.

On the last day of July, two women sat in folding chairs on a concrete slab of a porch, sweating and watching the storm clouds roll in and talking with their friend Ron Hodge about whether the renovation, which promises to completely update Colonial Village’s 21 apartments, would make their lives better.

Hodge 53, has never lived anywhere but Bradford. He has worked mostly construction jobs until about five years ago, when the twin burdens of depression and arthritis forced him onto disability.

He criticized the state about the property, pointing to, among other things, exposed rusting rebar on a series of chipped concrete steps connecting the senior housing units to a parking area at the bottom of the sloping land on which they sit.

“You can’t even walk down there without twisting your ankle,” he said.

The complex, contained in four buildings at 59 and 63 S. Pleasant St. and 98 and 120 S. Main St., includes 14 housing units for seniors and the disabled, and seven for income-qualified families.

Downstreet, formerly known as the Central Vermont Community Land Trust, has assembled $5.3 million in funding from state and federal agencies that will reimburse the nonprofit for its purchase, with the balance going toward improvements designed to address hazards, extend the life of the structures and improve energy-efficiency.

The work is scheduled to begin in January. Residents will be relocated to other housing in Bradford for several months while their apartments are rehabbed.

Resident Linda Bailey said she has been happy with Downstreet’s takeover — and with the prospect of the upcoming renovation.

“There are going to be new countertops and appliances and bathroom fixtures in our units,” she said.

The renovation also is designed to bring the units into compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and make two of the apartments completely accessible.

Still, Bailey said, she wished the renovation would address a different, structural problem.

“There was a woman here a few years ago who thought she was having a heart attack. I was with her,” Bailey said. “It took them over 20 minutes to get her out the door.”

The problem, Bailey said, is that in order to get out of some of the units, stretchers have to navigate a small, square entryway and turn a tight, 90-degree left turn to get out and onto the porch, followed by an immediate 90-degree right turn to get off the porch.

Downstreet administrators acknowledged the problem, but said it was not an ADA compliance issue and not within the scope of the current project.

“We had a neighbor who passed away, and when they had her on the stretcher, they had to stand the stretcher up to get her out,” Bailey said, drawing her eyebrows together in a furrow of concern.

Mold Problems

“I’ve got mold in my back room,” said Judi Foucher, one of the two women sitting on the porch last month.

Foucher, a former nurse who sported a rich purple ponytail, walked into the second bedroom of her unit, where the odor of mold hung heavy in the humid air. A door at the rear of the bedroom opened into a small utility closet that holds a water heater and a panel of circuit breakers. Mold was visible on the concrete wall.

“When it rains and that water starts running down that wall, I’m afraid there’s going to be an electrical fire,” Foucher said.

She said she had complained about the situation to Downstreet.

“I complained about the mold too,” said the other woman, Diana Downing, 67, who lives in the apartment next door.

“They said they’re going to take care of it anyway, when they redo the building,” Foucher said.

Catherine Rice, Section 8 contracts administrator for Vermont State Housing Authority, said leaving tenants in substandard housing for any amount of time is not acceptable.

Rice, who has inspected Colonial Village’s common areas for compliance with federal standards, expressed faith in Downstreet’s management team.

“I can’t believe that, if they were told these things, that they didn’t take care of them,” she said. “It makes me upset that the residents are saying these things.”

Alison Friedkin, Downstreet’s director of real estate development, said that, after the Valley News asked on Tuesday about the mold and other health and safety complaints raised by residents, Downstreet reviewed its work order history to track relevant complaints.

“We are very aware of an issue of groundwater coming into those units and causing a moisture problem,” Friedkin said on Thursday. “That is a lot of the reason we are doing this rehab.”

The senior housing units lie on a slope, with South Pleasant Street above and South Main Street below. The renovation will permanently address the water seepage, but Friedkin said Downstreet also took short-term measures.

“We’re not just waiting,” she said. “When we took over, our maintenance (staff) put in three days of work regrading, and putting in an ice and water shield to try and redirect that water. ... We tried to do what we could with limited resources.”

John Downing, who has worked on the Valley News press crew since January, said there’s no excuse to keep his mother in an apartment in which the mold is pervasive.

“It’s just a pad sitting on a concrete floor. It’s had a moldy smell in there for the last eight years,” he said. “Every spring she gets flooded out. Sometimes she gets 2 inches of water on the floor. I’ve gone down and shampooed her carpet many times for her.”

Friedkin said the records showed there were no outstanding complaints from residents about existing mold. She spoke repeatedly and convincingly of the nonprofit group’s commitment to address any maintenance problems faced by residents.

“I would suggest if any of the residents have concerns, give us a call,” she said. “We will go out and look at it and see if there’s any steps we can take to correct a problem, but we really need to go through those channels.”

Downstreet in Demand

Downstreet owns about 500 low-income housing units, mostly in Washington County and the Bradford area of Orange County. Many projects, Friedkin said, are like Colonial Village or nearby Waits River Apartments, with 20 or 30 apartment units.

The nonprofit is constantly applying for grants to purchase new units or to modernize existing ones.

The Colonial Village project will renovate the units and replace the current electric baseboard heating system with a single wood-pellet boiler to service all four structures.

The money will come from a variety of sources, including $1.8 million from the federal Affordable Housing Program, $400,000 from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, $410,000 from the HOME Investment Partnerships program run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and $249,000 from a federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit.

The point, Downstreet says, is to help low-income tenants.

“That’s our whole mission, to find safe, decent affordable housing for folks,” said Mike Kucserik, a property manager from Downstreet who visits Colonial Village every Thursday. He said the bulk of the calls he gets are garden-variety issues — clogged sinks and toilets, or burned-out light bulbs.

Bradford Selectboard Chairman Ted Unkles said Downstreet has proven to be a good partner on other low-income housing projects in the community.

“I’ve not heard any complaints about their old ones,” he said. “I’ve heard that things got much better under their management.”

Those who live in Colonial Village pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, with the balance coming from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program.

The subsidies make an enormous difference to low-income tenants such as Foucher and Downing, who pay $232 a month.

The Vermont State Housing Authority is just one of nine housing authorities in the state, but it oversees about 3,900 Section 8 vouchers, more than the other eight combined, and its waitlist, which has been closed since April 2015, has 1,400 applicants.

Colonial Village uses project-based vouchers, a subset of Section 8 in which the subsidy is tied to the location, rather than the person. One advantage of the system is that it can give a nonprofit such as Downstreet a reliable stream of funding that it can use to keep a property like Colonial Village from sliding into neglect. But a disadvantage to tenants who don’t have personal vouchers is that it ties them to the property, making it more difficult to leave if they’re dissatisfied.

Insects and Spoiled Food

Downing, slight and gray-haired, has a sweet, open way of talking, with a slight Yankee accent that marks her time on the farm in Thetford where she raised four children.

“She was wicked energetic,” her son said. “She was an avid horseback rider. She kept horses the whole time we were growing up.”

When she moved to Bradford, John Downing said, the horses stayed in Thetford, but she quickly earned a local reputation.

“She’s known around Bradford as the woman on the bike,” he said. “You knew it was a bad day if you didn’t see my mom on a bike.”

Now, she’s slowed down. Her health keeps her off both horses and bicycles, and it’s been increasingly difficult for her to keep up with her gardening, so she spends more days on the porch, talking with Foucher, Hodge and other residents.

Downing said her limited mobility cost her dearly about a year ago, when her refrigerator became increasingly unreliable.

“I knew about my refrigerator, and I shouldn’t have gone shopping, but I only get to the store once a month,” she said.

So she stocked up, spending more than $200 on chicken, butter, milk, carrots and other vegetables. Within days, she said, the refrigerator had died again, spoiling it all.

In the months leading up to that event, she said, she’d called Katharine Slie multiple times in an effort to get her refrigerator repaired or replaced. Slie served as head of maintenance when the properties were controlled by Huntington’s estate, and she has continued in that role as Downstreet’s property management coordinator.

After the food went bad, Downing said, she called Slie once more and stated her intention to buy a new refrigerator.

“I didn’t want to get a brand-new refrigerator. But they didn’t listen to me,” she said. “My food all spoiled. And I had to throw it all away, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I can’t afford to be spoiling food.”

At a local rent-to-own appliance store, Downing entered into a contract under which she will pay $123 a month — about 16 percent of her total income — for two years.

“She’s getting hosed,” her son said of the monthly appliance contract. “But she doesn’t have a lot of money, and it’s the only way she can do it, by payments.”

Downstreet’s version of the story is very different.

“We, of all people, understand that our residents are not in a position to lose a fridge full of food,” said Friedkin, Downstreet’s director of real estate development. “I’ve heard stories where our maintenance staff is going over with coolers and ice. We don’t leave people hanging.”

A phone message left for Slie was returned by Friedkin, who said, “Downstreet staff cannot respond to any tenant issues prior to (Downstreet purchasing the buildings) as we were not the managers and do not have the records to support any tenant communications.”

After reviewing work orders, Friedkin said, there was not a single record of Downing calling the office about her refrigerator since Downstreet assumed ownership in February 2015.

However, she said, after Kucserik saw Downing’s discarded refrigerator, he tested it and found that it was working. She said he called the rent-to-own center to find out how Downing could return her new unit. But Downing, presented with the choice, decided to keep the new refrigerator rather than take her old one back.

“In my mind, he went above and beyond,” Friedkin said.

Downing also said she has, for the last four years, battled repeated infestations from insects that have bitten her and her two cats, leaving her with scars on her legs.

“I called them as soon as it happened,” she said. “The very first time was four years ago. ... I don’t think they believed me.”

Eventually, she said, she gave Slie a jar with three insects inside.

“I said, ‘These are the things that are living in my place that are biting me and my cats, my two cats, and I want them to do something about it,’ ” she said.

She said Downstreet had chemicals sprayed to kill the insects, but they keep coming back. Hodge, Foucher and Downing’s son each said they had seen both the insects and the bites on Downing’s legs.

Friedkin said Downstreet’s work order documentation shows no history of complaints about insects in Downing’s apartment.

Friedkin was asked if a resident could have called and complained to an employee at the office who had not generated a work order.

“I seriously doubt it,” she said. “That’s not the way we do things.”

Different Histories

For each of the potential issues — mold, insects and faulty appliances — the disconnect between the tenants and Downstreet boiled down to a disagreement about whether the tenants actually had reported the problems.

Downstreet has two main reporting options for residents: They can call Downstreet’s offices, which are open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., or use a work order submission form on its website.

The system results in the completion of about 1,600 work orders each year, Downstreet said, and some residents, including Bailey, said they have had no problem getting their problems fixed.

“If we have a problem, we have a number we can call with a work order,” she said. “If it’s non-emergency, sometimes we might have to wait a few days. But normally within a week it’s taken care of.”

There is a separate emergency number, which Downing said she used successfully when a portion of her ceiling caved in from a plumbing leak in the apartment above.

“We want to know about these things,” Friedkin said. “I’m confident in our procedures. The problem is usually more one of communication, of folks calling our office and putting in the work order.”

Friedkin said residents sometimes tell Downstreet workers about problems in person, rather than calling the right number to generate a work order, Friedkin said.

Hodge said he has been told to call the office, but he bristles.

“You’re standing right there,” he said. “I’m telling you.”

Rice, of the Vermont State Housing Authority, said property managers shouldn’t be held accountable for these types of conversations because managers can be inundated with requests that are difficult to fully understand and keep track of.

Friedkin said Downstreet had responded to all complaints it had received, and that there were no outstanding work orders.

Another part of the disconnect might be explained by the recent ownership change.

Downstreet didn’t begin tracking work orders at the property until it bought the buildings in early 2015. Slie oversaw maintenance for both owners, which could have created a confusing timeline for tenants who assumed concerns expressed to Slie under the previous owners were on record with the new owners.

“I don’t mean this in a disparaging way to the previous owners, but (Slie) may not have had the resources before we took over,” Friedkin said.

The residents maintained they had used the proper reporting channel to call Downstreet, not the previous owners, to report mold and refrigeration issues multiple times.

Despite the different accounts, both Downstreet and the residents sounded a hopeful note about the future and the improvements promised by the upcoming project. Residents said they were looking forward to moving back in after the project.

“We’re fully funded,” Friedkin said. “We’re in design development, fine tuning the scope of work. We’re addressing everything needed to extend the life of these units for the next 20 years. It’s an exciting time.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com.



Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy