BENNINGTON — On a rainy afternoon in early December, Bruce Bird sat in his studio apartment, listening to a radio talk show. Through glass windows that dominated two walls of the ground-level residence, he could see people coming and going in downtown Bennington.
Piled in one corner of the room, around an open suitcase, were clothes and some bedding. At the kitchen counter, a framed photograph of his late partner rested on a stack of documents.
Sitting in a wooden rocking chair, Bird, 79, appeared to be savoring his new home. After five months of what he described as either “freezing or frying” in a local motel room, he was particularly pleased to have a working thermostat.
“I have the little adjustment right over there, and I know how to use it,” Bird grinned, pointing to the wall beside his mattress.
It was only his second day in the apartment, which he found through a nonprofit organization that helps people experiencing homelessness. After his partner passed away this year, and he had to move out of her house in Connecticut, Bird decided to return to his hometown.
But he didn’t have a place to stay in Bennington and initially depended on state motel vouchers. “I couldn’t afford rent anywhere,” the retiree said.
Then, a Bennington apartment building at 219 Pleasant St., which had been undergoing a facelift since the summer of 2020, reopened its doors.
Because the renovations involved a type of federal grant, six of the building’s 11 apartments had to be designated as affordable housing. For 10 years, these units would specifically be rented at lower rates to people earning 80% or less of the county’s median income. The rest of the apartments are being leased at market rates.
Private developers enter the scene
This project was the vision of Hale Resources, a Bennington real estate development and property management company. In 2018, the company bought the building — two merged historical houses that had been turned into 10 apartments — intending to rehabilitate it, using money from the Community Development Block Grant.
It was awarded $918,000 from the federal grant that same year, following an application on Hale’s behalf by the Bennington town government.
According to the state, which administers the grant, Hale Resources became the first for-profit company in Vermont to receive these federal dollars toward renovating a historic structure into affordable housing units. The Community Development Block Grant was designed primarily to benefit people of low and moderate income.
The state Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s 2020-25 housing needs assessment shows that nearly 90,000 renter and owner households — more than a third of Vermont households — are burdened by their housing costs. This means their monthly housing costs consume more than 30% of their income, the maximum level considered affordable for the average household. This situation leaves them with less money for other living expenses, which can lead to housing instability.
“Any entrepreneur is trying to solve problems. We’re making a living out of solving housing problems,” said Zak Hale, co-partner at Hale Resources with his dad, Jon Hale.
Because the property has historic significance, Hale Resources collaborated with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation to keep as much of the original buildings as they could. One of the original houses, facing Valentine Street, is estimated to have been built in 1874, according to nomination documents with the National Register of Historic Places. The other house, facing Pleasant Street, was apparently built in 1901.
The renovation, which the Hales said involved redesigning the building layout, has resulted in one studio apartment, nine one-bedroom units and a two-bedroom residence.
In a tour of the apartment building this week, Jon Hale and Zak Hale pointed out some of the century-old fixtures: staircases, wooden doors, windows, glass panes and wooden trim.
They talked about uncovering objects from the attic and basement, and finding the original ceiling covered by acoustic ceiling panels, and more old doors behind sheetrock.
The Community Development Block Grant covered most of the $1.6 million renovation costs, the Hales said. Without the federal financial assistance, Jon Hale said, the development would have taken his company at least a decade to complete.
The Hales said they also invested $573,000 of their company’s money into the project, including $285,000 to buy the property. They hope to recover some of their other upfront costs through tax credits.
Shannon Barsotti, Bennington’s community development director, said the project has not only improved the town’s housing stock and preserved a historic property, but it also has helped redevelop a portion of downtown that had seen better days.
“I do think that those kinds of transformative projects have that ripple effect on the neighborhood,” she said.
On top of that, officials said 219 Pleasant St. shows that public-private partnerships can reduce the overall cost of developing affordable housing units.
Each apartment Hale renovated cost an average of $145,000. In comparison, said Bennington town spokesperson Jonah Spivak, similar units developed through the nonprofit sector average between $230,000 and $330,000.
“The majority of rental units in the state of Vermont are owned by private landlords, so this is a great example of how a federal program like CDBG can help address our housing needs in partnership with private landlords,” said Nathan Cleveland, community development specialist for the Vermont Community Development Program, which administers the Community Development Block Grant.
Barsotti also credited Hale Resources for pursuing the grant, which she said involves a significant amount of paperwork, government oversight and follow-ups. “They’ve been really on top of it,” said Barsotti, who oversees Bennington’s applications for the grant and prepares progress reports.
She hopes more for-profit developers will undertake affordable housing projects, and Hale Resources can serve as a mentor.
The Hales had the same thought. They want to pave the way for more companies to do the same thing.
“We want to get the word out that someone’s doing this,” Jon Hale said.
In the meantime, he hopes their application to put 219 Pleasant St., Bennington, on the National Register of Historic Places will get the federal government’s nod.
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