Longtime housing director to focus on special projects

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BRATTLEBORO — Christine Hart has always seen her work at Brattleboro Housing Partnerships as a vocation rather than an occupation.

"There's a big difference in those two words," the group's executive director said. "I felt like I was really called to be this housing director and I've always loved housing and I've always worked in it my whole life. And I say with great pride and no arrogance, I've built a great agency. I've had a lot of help and good staff."

For 24 years, Hart has led the agency. But she will soon serve as its director of development — overseeing a $3.2 million grant from Federal Emergency Management Agency to demolish Melrose Terrace buildings prone to damage during floods, construction of an addition at Red Clover Commons so Melrose households can move there, and implementation of changes to the types of subsidies used for operating four public housing properties.

Hart will be succeeded by Christine Hazzard, who has served as manager of the resident wellness and supportive services team, and Support and Services at Home program manager for Windham and Windsor counties since arriving at BHP in 2012. Hazzard will be deputy executive director until Jan. 1, when the changes are slated to occur.

BHP Board Chairwoman Janet F. Cramer said she and her fellow commissioners wanted succession within the staff.

PROJECTS UNDER HART

Late last month, the agency learned it would receive a FEMA pre-disaster mitigation grant it applied for in 2016. That will help see the last stages of a project brought upon in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011: 11 buildings at Melrose will be demolished, a box culvert will be installed by the nearby bridge, traffic will be rerouted and the 25 remaining households will relocate to Red Clover or receive a subsidy for another place. Previous Melrose tenants have already moved into Red Clover, which opened in 2017 with 55 units.

It is anticipated that the Melrose property will have landscaping, trails and water storage capabilities to protect downtown from flood waters and debris going downstream. Melrose will no longer be used for public housing.

Five buildings will remain standing. Hart said she has had discussions with representatives from the West Brattleboro Association about reusing the space for community purposes such as art, business incubation and children's activities.

"Anything but housing is how I think about it," she laughed.

Hart anticipates the agency's office will stay at the site for a while. Lease payments could help offset costs for using the property for community programming.

Demolition is set to start this year. Mitigation work is to start next spring.

"So we'll be getting lots of permits and approval through the winter," Hart said. "We have a match that we have to make toward the grant. We have a $200,000 gap in that match."

Hart also is looking to secure funding for the addition at Red Clover on Fairground Road. She expects to have all the money together by the beginning of next summer, then construction could get started in fall 2020.

The project entails constructing a three-story building with 18 units on top of the surface parking lot.

"I think of it as kind of a modern looking cottage on the property," said Hart.

To gain more freedom in what can be done with four of the agency's public housing properties, she is working on going from a public housing operating subsidy to a Section 9 voucher-based system.

"We will have much more ability to control our own properties," she said. "Right now, there's a very strict declaration of trust that's held by HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development]. Through this conversion process, that gets released."

Her group intends to do some "energy retrofitting" that it may not have been able to do under HUD. An updated master plan for the properties is expected to be created with some guidance from Hart before she leaves.

Hart does not plan to stay longer than five years. She said she is looking forward to working on the three major projects.

"They're big," she said. "It's tough to be executive director and have these types of projects on your desk as well."

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She described the director job as equal parts "stressful" and "rich and rewarding."

HAZZARD AT THE HELM

Hazzard said she is looking forward to continuing to develop the staff, supportive services for residents and relationships with other agencies.

"In the last three years, the support staff and the property management meets once a week to work on how to implement our programs in a way that's more seamless," she said, noting that one of the results had been the creation of a resident advisory board.

Hart said Hazzard has "a very good rapport" with residents and is respected by staff.

"I value her in her management thinking," Hart said, describing Hazzard as "smart" and personable. "And it seemed for all those reasons that she would make a good successor."

Hart worried the agency "could lose momentum" if the commissioners conducted an external search for candidates.

Hazzard said she plans to learn the ins and outs of the agency while absorbing all the information she can from Hart.

"The fact that she's going to be working here on the special projects, especially because they are so big, will give me the opportunity to really dig into the organization," said Hazzard.

The agency, Hart said, "is interesting because we have a very strong social mission, a strong housing mission, but we are also a business. We are a non-profit business. We have to be very knowledgeable and diligent about our budget, about personnel, about what goes into our business."

In Hart's telling, the agency has gotten "a whole lot better" at helping its residents.

"I know when I started there was always this debate about whether a housing authority should get into social services or should we just see ourselves as landlords," she said, feeling strongly that her group should be coordinating services.

Hart said the needs of residents have not changed all that much over the years.

"We house people who are really poor and often we say, 'They're one flat tire away from not being able to pay the rent,'" she said. "That hasn't changed. Our wait list is still very, very long — two years at times."

When the agency was working on a strategic plan about three years ago, it decided to drop the last word in Brattleboro Housing Authority and add "partnerships." That was intended to "reflect that we work in partnerships," Hart said.

Hart looks at the agency's offerings as the first step of a journey that she hopes will end in homeownership or a tenant being a "good" renter.

"People often talk about public housing, 'Oh, you're the last resort,'" she said. "I said, 'No, that is wrong.' We are not the last resort. We are the first resort because we will take the high risk, the people who have no money. We will take them into our housing and we will give them housing. We will give them the stability of housing."

Her group accepts tenants who are in recovery from substance abuse disorder.

"We know it's not a straight line," Hart said. "We think that this is a great opportunity for them to get a place to live and have that stability while they're working on their recovery program."

Cramer said the board is looking for two more commissioners. Those who are interested should reach out to current commissioners or the Brattleboro town manager's secretary, Jan Anderson.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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