Tenant ownership at Westgate?


WEST BRATTLEBORO -- Even though a decision is still more than two years away, Mary Tier thinks it is not too early for the tenants at Westgate Housing Community to begin thinking about tenant ownership.

When Westgate was purchased from the original developers in 2001, there was a provision in the deal that stipulated that the tenants would be given an opportunity to take over ownership of the 98-unit, West Brattleboro affordable housing complex 15 years after the transfer.

That date will arrive in 2016 or 2017, and Tier, who has lived at Westgate for 19 years, wants her neighbors to learn about the very important decision.

The Westgate Housing Community annual meeting will be held Sunday, Aug. 17, at 11 a.m., and it will include speakers and consultants who will talk about the history and pending decision.

The tenants will also be holding a vote that day to merge the two existing boards which run and manage Westgate, which Tier said is a first step toward tenant ownership.

"This is a very special annual meeting. People need to come to hear more information and understand what is going on. It's their future," Tier said. "We're going to talk about our history, and where we are at. And we're going to talk about where we want to be. We want to see what the befits are to doing any of this."

Westgate Housing Community is an affordable housing apartment complex that was built in the 1970s by Bernard Gilhuly and Don Tarinelli, who used U.S. Housing and Urban Development funds to build the apartments.

The developers had a 20-year contract to maintain affordable housing, and at the end of that contract there were a number of local initiatives taken to purchase the property from the developer and keep it affordable

In 2000 the then-Windham Housing Trust and Housing Vermont formed Westgate Housing Inc. and successfully purchased Westgate, taking on a major rehabilitation project at the time. Housing Vermont spent about $2 million on the purchase and invested $9.5 million in to the apartments. At that point an agreement was struck that said the tenants would have the right to take over ownership in 15 years when the tax credits expire.

Westgate currently has two governing boards. Westgate Housing Inc., which includes five tenants and four community members, oversees the finances and policies at the housing complex. The Westgate Tenants Association, represents the living conditions and social activities at Westgate. A consultant has recommended that the two boards merge into a single board with ten tenants and five community members. Each household will have one vote as the tenants try to decide if they want to merge the two boards. A vote on that proposal will be held Aug. 17.

"Some of us think it wise to merge the two boards," Tier said. "It is a step toward tenant ownership of Westgate."

In 2008 the tenants at Northgate Apartments, an affordable complex with 336 units in Burlington, voted to move to tenant ownership.

Byron Stookey, who has been involved with affordable housing issues in Brattleboro for more than 20 years is one of the community members on the Westgate Housing Inc. board. Since the property sale in 2001 the number of tenants on the WHI board has been steadily increasing and he said the organization is in a good position to begin the transition toward tenant ownership.

"This was the idea back in 2000 and 2001," he said. "The goal was to do a major makeover and then work toward tenant control."

Stookey said there are still a lot of questions to answer about the potential change.

The tenants will not gain full equity in their apartments if the deal goes through, but they would probably get something if they pay rent for years and move out. And there will also have to be a covenant in place in case the change leads to some kind of disruption in safety of standard of living at Westgate. It is also unclear what will happen to the ownership structure if the tenants vote down the idea

Still Stookey said he is looking forward to working through the issues with the tenants.

"I think it's a marvelous idea," he said. "Hopefully in the next few years we'll be able to get the tenant's heads turned around so they think of themselves as property owners. If it is done well there is a lot to be said for the sense of community and individual investment that would come with tenant ownership."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. Follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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