BRATTLEBORO — Up to 75 refugees could find their new home in this town over the next year under a proposed resettlement program in Windham County.
The Ethiopian Community Development Council has applied for federal permission to add Brattleboro to its list of more than a dozen U.S. relocation sites, it told the local selectboard Tuesday.
“We are going to start small and then grow annually,” said Tsehaye Teferra, president of a private nonprofit organization that helps people not only from Africa, but also from Asia, Europe and Latin America.
Although the council cannot say yet where refugees would come from, each would be “fleeing their country because of persecution, either for religion, national origin or political involvement,” Teferra said.
The plan doesn’t require local or state approval but must clear two other hurdles. It first needs U.S. State Department authorization, which could come as early as September. It then faces an even higher bar: Securing affordable housing in a town with one of the lowest vacancy rates in the state.
“I’m very anxious to embrace and welcome new community members,” selectboard member Tim Wessel told the plan’s proponents. “But how do you go about finding suitable housing in a community with housing challenges?”
The council hopes to answer that with the help of another nonprofit, Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., which has established a “Welcoming Communities” program to attract a younger, more diverse population to a state that’s the fourth-oldest and second-whitest in the nation.
“We’ve known we need to grow, but this isn’t about plugging holes in our economy,” program manager Alexander Beck said. “It’s about strengthening the community.”
Offering employment should be easy, as a slew of local businesses are posting help-wanted signs. But providing housing will be harder because of an influx of newcomers who purchased area property during Covid-19, as well as people experiencing homelessness now leaving the state’s pandemic lodging program.
Local leaders did not offer a housing solution, just the opinion that everyone should have the opportunity to seek it.
“Five years ago we had a housing challenge. Ten years ago we had a housing challenge. We continue to have a housing challenge,” said Adam Grinold, executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. “But we also know we need people and we need them now.”
“No one will show up until the housing is secured, so the pace at which this occurs is the pace at which we can solve these problems collaboratively,” Beck said.
The selectboard, opening its meeting to public comment, received only one criticism from a man who questioned whether the council would “have an incentive to basically flood the community with as many people as they can, without regard for how it benefits us.”
In response, Teferra said his organization would receive only a $1,250 grant to help cover each refugee’s larger resettlement costs.
“Anybody working in this field is not motivated by any financial gains, I can assure you,” Teferra said. “We are a humanitarian organization. Our heart and soul is really to help people resettle and get away from the trauma. They are driven from their homes, from their dreams, separated from their families. We are going to appeal to the community to join us as partners in order to make this program.”
Local leaders voiced unanimous support for the proposal.
“We need to make the change that’s going to make Vermont the place we want it to be,” selectboard member Ian Goodnow said. “That’s diversity, that’s inclusion.”