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Jim Kenyon: Seeing Is Believing at Windsor’s Union Square

  • 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. Geoff Hansen

Published: 8/25/2018 11:49:49 PM
Modified: 8/27/2018 10:19:59 AM

When Stacey Boyle entered Windsor’s four-story brick apartment building, long known as the ‘The Block,’ for the first time in 2005, she passed through hallways sprayed with graffiti and came across discarded needles in dimly lit stairwells.

“I was terrified,” said Boyle, who at the time was in her early 20s and working for a nonprofit home health organization. “It was a dark, scary place, and I was a small, young woman going up to these apartments alone.”

After a couple of career changes, Boyle returned to The Block — now called Union Square Apartments — in 2013 as the affordable housing complex’s site manager.

Boyle — like just about anyone else who had ever been inside — couldn’t believe her eyes when she first saw the transformed building.

Starting in the late 2000s, it has undergone a complete metamorphosis. That’s what new nonprofit owners and $17 million in renovations can do for a place. But it’s about more than new carpeting, appliances, lighting and freshly painted walls.

The culture has changed. It’s no longer the housing of last resort for people who, let’s just say, aren’t always interested in contributing to the community. A scan of old newspaper clippings reveals the building had more than its share of drug dealing, crime and violence.

For decades, Armory Square — its official name — was the “major source of problems,” confronting Windsor police, said Chief William Sampson, who came to town in 2014.

“Now, we have very few problems there,” Sampson told me. “The small problems we have, we’re able to work through with (Boyle’s) help. She’s been excellent.”

Tenants in Union Square’s 58 apartments are a blend of working families, many of them single mothers, elderly and people with disabilities. Among tenants who aren’t disabled or elderly, the employment rate is high. They often work in the Lebanon area, but can’t afford to live in that part of the Upper Valley, Boyle said.

At Union Square, rents top out at about $1,000 a month. Government subsidies, which are based on income, often cover a hefty share. Generally speaking, tenants fall into the $35,000-or-less income bracket.

The building’s turnaround started in 2007, when Housing Vermont, a nonprofit developer, and the Rockingham Area Community Land Trust purchased the complex from a private owner who lived in Massachusetts.

With millions of dollars in federal and state grants and loans at their disposal, the new owners overhauled the building, which dates back to the early 1920s. The complex was shuttered for a year or so while the improvements were ongoing. (Former tenants could re-apply, but were given no preferential treatment.)

The new owners brought in Stewart Property Management, a Bedford, N.H., company, to screen applicants and oversee the place. In 2013, Stewart Property hired Boyle to handle day-to-day operations.

How’s she done?

Boyle was recently named the 2018 New Hampshire/Vermont Site Manager of the Year for Family Housing. The Rural Housing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture presents the award annually to a site manager whose “service, dedication and caring for tenants” exemplify what federal and state governments are trying to accomplish through affordable housing programs.

“She deserves a lot of credit” for the building’s success, said Paul Stewart, whose company nominated Boyle for the award. “She’s invested in the community.”

Boyle, 35, is a single mom with a daughter entering first grade. She’s bought a house in town and is a volunteer coach for the recreation department. Tenants chat her up in the supermarket and while she’s buying coffee at the convenience store.

“I enjoy being part of this community,” said Boyle, who grew up in Springfield, Vt. “Windsor is my home now.”

What makes Boyle a good site manager?

“She listens,” said Kiley Thompson, a 25-year-old single mother who moved in four months ago. “She was very reassuring that this was a good place.”

Thompson, who moved from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, works at Springfield Hospital. When a friend of her mother, who lives in Claremont, heard about her choice of apartment, he asked, “Are you sure you want to live there?”

Boyle hears that a lot. Particularly when the potential tenant is a single mom. They tell Boyle, “The apartment is beautiful, but my mom says the building isn’t safe.”

So far every skeptical parent who has taken her up on her offer to tour the building and grounds has had a change of mind, Boyle said.

Last week, I asked Boyle for a tour. We started out in the first-floor community room, which has a kitchen, sofas, tables and a big-screen TV. The room is used for, among other things, yoga classes, children’s birthday parties and soon — Boyle hopes — for watching the NFL on Sundays.

Upstairs are two modern laundry rooms. In the back of the building, a tenants’ vegetable garden sits atop the bank of Mill Brook. The apartments themselves range from one to three bedrooms with wood floors. Some offer views of the brook.

Two apartments were vacant last week, but that had less to do with demand than Stewart Property Management’s reputation for screening applicants carefully. Applicants must pass a fairly rigorous criminal background check — no felony convictions in the past 10 years, for starters — and can’t have a history of unpaid utility bills or bad reports from previous landlords.

That said, Boyle tries to be understanding. “People deserve a second chance,” she said, “and sometimes the only way they’re going to get it is if I give it to them.”

Sounds a lot like the history of ‘The Block’ itself.

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




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