I have had one heckuva time getting this column right. I had mixed up two programs, one of which is no longer in existence, in my enthusiasm to get the word out to the community about an option most of us know nothing about. It is all so complicated to a layman like me. Only the diligent folks who operate these programs really understand all the ins and outs. It is so hard to get down on paper the heart, the core, of these programs.

Windham & Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT) hosts the Shared Equity Home Ownership Program, offering grants up to $40,000 to cover the down payment for qualified low and moderate income local homebuyers. In exchange for this contribution, the homebuyer agrees that the property will remain in the affordable range in perpetuity. The buyer must qualify for a bank mortgage that will cover the rest of the cost of the house. The buyer purchases the home and Windham & Windsor Housing Trust purchases the land under the home. When the owner decides to sell, if the property has increased in value, the owner earns 25 percent of that appreciation (this is called "Shared Equity" or "Shared Appreciation"). In addition, the owner earns 100 percent of any equity they have built up over the years of paying their mortgage. The $40,000 grant will then be recycled to the next owner, and on and on. This is similar to the model used by Habitat for Humanity Š giving folks "a hand up, (over that big bump of a cash down payment) not a hand out." Many buyers appreciate the fact that the home will be affordable to the next owner as well. Usually these are working folk (often young) whose income is sufficient to maintain their lifestyle, but not high enough to allow the accumulation of spare monies for a down payment on a house or condo to actually own instead of rent. Most people if given a chance would rather own their home than continue to pay rent forever. It is a win/win all around. Come to think of it -- Windham & Windsor even has it in their name!

I know one person who used this program and morphed into a fantastic gardener. Every inch of the property is now producing gorgeous flowers and vegetables. I remember this property before the current owner. It was a decrepit and sad looking place. But no more. Now it is a little Eden, a pleasure to drive by and admire. The owner has worked hard to bring her home out of its dark ages.

While housing prices "softened" a bit in the downturn of the economy, local wages have been stagnant. It is still not easy to get into the ownership market in our area. Over 140 homeowners have purchase a home through the Housing Trust, throughout Windham and Windsor counties. They include teachers, small business owners, therapists, nurses and hospital employees as well as non-profit professionals, all working folks and valuable contributors to their communities. These properties are not handouts or charity. Their existence takes nothing away from other homes in the community. They exist because a bunch of dedicated and, I must say, very clever and creative, folks figured out how to bring funds together from various sources in order to pull off this real estate hat trick. Only a non-profit organization would be interested in doing something like this where there is no financial incentive and no money to be made except salaries for the staff.

Windham & Windsor Housing Trust is today’s incarnation of the old Brattleboro Area Community Land Trust. The organization was born 27 years ago. It has grown and grown under the amazing leadership of Connie Snow and her staff of dedicated trench workers (and, man, are they ever hard workers). Three years ago, the organization was asked to merge with the Rockingham Area Land Trust, which had been struggling for several years. BACLT had been recognized by the state for years as one of the best run land trusts in the state. Along with the merger, came the NeighborWorks America Charter. This is BIG STUFF in the housing world, one of only five charters in Vermont. It made it easier to expand into Windsor County, and added strength to the organization.

The Board has always been made up of local community-oriented folks who recognize the value of the work W&WHT does to "try" to affect the many inequities in our society. I have been keeping a seat warm on that Board for five years, watching, learning, and trying to keep up with the complexities of the projects they manage to pull out of the hat. Writing these columns is my effort to contribute something myself (since, God knows, I am not a local notable). My friends roll their eyes when I get all excited every month after the Thursday afternoon Board meetings. I am NOT a meetings person and when I was working I did everything in my power to avoid being put on committees. But I am so impressed every month by the staff and director’s reports. I am often dumbfounded by how much they accomplish. (Oh, somebody please send these folks to Washington to get the government moving again...). For information on the Shared Equity Home Ownership Program at W&WHT call 802-246-2116.

Claudette Hollenbeck, MSW, LICSW, is a retired Social Worker, residing in Wilmington, on the Boards of W&WHT and West River Habitat for Humanity.