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Barre to Spend $1M on Housing
Barre Goes Big For Housing with Federal Funds Communities across the state and nation are weighing their options for how best to use their one-time allocations of federal funding through the $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan Act — the COVID-19 stimulus package signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11, 2021. As for Barre City, the priority is clear: creating more stable, secure, comfortable, and affordable housing. “Ask anyone, on the street or in a coffee shop,” says City Councilor Ericka Reil. “Housing is the number-one issue. A lot of our housing stock is very old. A lot of it has old plumbing, old siding, old roofing. As homeowners you’re thinking —– and as landlords you’re thinking, constantly —– about ‘replace this,’ ‘weatherize that.’”Reil, who sees housing issues partly through the prism of homelessness (she serves on the homelessness task forces of both Barre and Montpelier, the latter through her employment at Another Way), has observed the cost of rentals rise steeply in her hometown, since she was last a renter 19 years ago. It’s not uncommon now, she claims, for rental units to cost $1,000 a month, which is a struggle for tenants in a comparatively low-income, working class community. “It’s hard,” she says, “for a single person with a family to rent in Barre.” The American Rescue Plan Act, known as ARPA, provides a windfall opportunity for Barre to address these problems. Barre’s award through the federal program is $2.5 million. In January, the mayor and city council announced a plan to dedicate 40 percent of that money — $1 million – to a wide-ranging housing initiative aimed at creating 125 homes over the next five years. Another $1 million is earmarked for infrastructure improvements that could overlap with the housing goals; the final 20 percent will, it is hoped, inspire innovative grant proposals to address other community issues. Barre’s housing initiative was born out of a community-wide discussion coordinated last fall by the Vermont Council on Rural Development. The resulting report, an action plan titled “All In For Barre,” recommended forming a housing task force to help the city evolve toward a “vibrant community and economy for all.” The task force is up and running and honing in on its objectives. Renita Marshall, chair of the All In For Barre initiative, says its members are having “very engaging conversations” with key players in the housing community. Members of the committee, she says, include local resident David Sichel (who serves as chair), residents of both Barre City and Barre Town, and representatives from such organizations as Capstone Community Action, Habitat for Humanity, and Central Vermont Medical Center. Already there’s a sense of momentum, and an air of optimism. “It’s an unprecedented opportunity,” says City Councilor Jake Hemmerick. “We’ve been through a tough two years; it’s felt like the 1918 epidemic, the civil rights struggles, and the Great Depression all at once. Now, with the ARPA and other opportunities the state is making available, there’s this huge economic shift, and what we’re trying to do with this project is to set some goals and get people moving toward those goals together.” Barre’s municipal government will not be going into the construction business. Rather, the housing task force will explore and help support opportunities for development. Hemmerick thinks they could be plentiful. “Working within our built environment,” he says, “there are opportunities for infill housing projects within walking distance of downtown. There are divided lots that could host new homes and would be workplace convenient, close to grocery stores [these would be small neighborhood markets; the city’s last supermarket, a Grand Union, closed 20 years ago], close to City Hall, stores, and houses of worship. We have neighborhoods in Barre that aren’t as built up as in other communities.” Additionally, Hemmerick cites a recent parking analysis which he says revealed not just that there’s sufficient parking for Barre’s current needs, but that with more-attentive planning and management parking availability could help lure housing development to the downtown area. Furthermore, Hemmerick and Barre Mayor Lucas Herring allude to the possibility of selling city-owned properties to increase available space for new housing. They also envision a close relationship between the housing task force and the city planning commission. This could provide flexibility in zoning regulations, for example, to permit greater density of housing units in some areas. “It’s important to define what we’re talking about,” says Herring (who recently announced he will not run for re-election on Town Meeting Day).”When we say ‘125 homes’ it means 125 units of housing. That could be a tiny home, an apartment, a brand new house… The City of Barre is mostly rentals right now. One of the things we’re talking about is creating equity for so people can afford a home rather than being renters their entire life.” Here’s where potential partnerships with local entities like Capstone and Downstreet Housing & Community Development come into play. “We’re a working-class town and very proud of that,” Councilor Reil points out. “But because of that, when people can invest in anything a lot of their money goes toward necessities.” Partnerships with those agencies or others could lower some of the barriers that non-wealthy people face, perhaps providing grant opportunities for first-time homeowners, or assistance with the various deposits landlords require for an otherwise affordable apartment. There’s also a very practical calculation at work for the city council, Mayor Herring reveals. “Housing is 40 percent of our [ARPA] allocation” he says. “The reason is because had long conversations about our grand list being stagnant. To change that you need to have population growth. More homes could mean more businesses; more businesses will need more employees. “One hundred and twenty-five new units,” he believes, “will have an impact.” See more about how Barre City is addressing housing for people in recovery, here.