• Forest Park banks on grants for revitalization
    By STEPHANIE M. PETERS STAFF WRITER | September 28,2009
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    Vyto Starinskas / Rutland Herald

    The siding is exposed on this building at the Forest Park development in Rutland on Friday.
    The weathered two-story brick row houses that line Forest Park Way in Rutland's southwest neighborhood have long been begrudgingly written off by the surrounding community as just another part of the crumbling landscape, and not without reason.

    Forest Park, the largest public housing complex in the city, fits the textbook definition of "severely distressed" public housing – that is, it requires major construction and investment to correct design deficiencies and it is a significant contributing factor to the physical decline and divestment in the surrounding neighborhood. Despite efforts to keep up with its regular maintenance and repairs, due to crippling costs and under-funded budgets, in its nearly 40-year life the development has not seen the type of rehabilitation it truly needs.

    These challenges – and the scope of the $20 million revitalization project the Rutland Housing Authority hopes to undertake to eliminate them – also make Forest Park a unique entity in Vermont's stock of public housing. Few public housing developments, if any, of this age and level of deterioration exist in the state, according to various officials iForest n the state's public and private housing sector.

    Which may also be why Vermont has never benefited from, much less even tried to apply for, up until last year, a highly competitive U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant program that, in its 15-year history, has infused $6 billion into eradicating the country's worst public housing developments, replacing them with mixed-income communities.

    Kevin Loso, the RHA's executive director, submitted the first application to come out of Vermont last fall on behalf of the Forest Park redevelopment initiative. He said then that he knew a first-time application was a long shot; lists of grant applications and recipients on HUD's Web site bring to bear the theory that awarding officials warm to projects over the years.

    This year, however, Loso said he's expecting different results for his $8 to $9 million grant application, and sees this month's news that the RHA will receive a $2.4 million grant from the Capital Fund Recovery Competition Grant, a program fueled by $1 billion in stimulus money for the project, as affirmation of its value.

    "Complete redevelopments of this scale are rare," Loso said in a recent interview in his Tremont Street offices. "We're looking to fundamentally change the nature of that community not just Forest Park, but the surrounding neighborhood. We also see this as a component of the overall Renaissance of Rutland."

    Early design flaws

    How did Forest Park end up in its current state?

    Much of the blame falls to the 1972 design and of construction of the 16-building complex, which houses 75 apartment units.

    Loso characterizes it as poor.

    The problems at the site are "in large part a function of the original site and (the developers) failure to address those issues prior to construction," he said.

    According to a report prepared by an independent consultant as part of last year's HOPE VI application that establishes the sites physical distress, Forest Park was built "to much less stringent specifications than are required today. In particular, the less stringent stormwater and drainage system in place contribute to excessive ponding and settling."

    Standing water has created frost heaves and pavement and sidewalk failure, while the compaction of the soil underneath the site has caused sunken catch basins, manholes and entry stoops, the report continues. The soil has also begun to crush the septic mains that extend from the main road, an issue that may soon require the RHA to invest funds in the existing system, despite plans to raze the facility, Loso said.

    The buildings are also plagued with problems, according to the report. The original brick veneer has deteriorated, while vinyl siding installed over the original siding has caused water damage and rot. The costs of heating the units with the existing electrical baseboards are "unreasonably expensive," and, along with the electrical and plumbing, need to be upgraded to comply with new building and energy codes, according to the report. The buildings will also require extensive asbestos removal though residents are currently at no risk of asbestos exposure, Loso said.

    Housing faces funding backlog

    The rest of the responsibility for the current state of affairs is rooted in the public housing funding picture. Throughout the country, much of public housing authorities' budgets for maintenance and deferred improvements come through annual appropriations from HUD. To say those budgets don't live up to the demand for improvements is an understatement.

    "Generally speaking, capital funding has never been adequate," said Paul Dettman, the executive director of the Burlington Housing Authority, the largest in the state. "There's a backlog of billions of dollars of improvements around the country."

    Still, Dettman said the BHA has been able to save its capital funds each year and fund improvements to its properties as needed. Despite being the largest authority in the state, with purview of 600 affordable apartments and about 1,700 families to which it provides rental assistance, Dettman said his organization has never had need for a project the size and scope of the Forest Park redevelopment. Although he said he's unfamiliar with the proposed project, he said he doesn't believe there's anything of Forest Park's nature elsewhere in the state.

    "In Vermont, I think generally speaking we pride ourselves on having properly maintained our housing stock," Dettman said in a phone interview last week.

    Housing projects throughout the state are continually being repaired and updated, but usually the difference between project costs and their regular budget – or the "gap" – can be met through other sources, such as housing tax credits, which can cover up to 50 to 60 percent of a projects cost, according to Sarah Carpenter, executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

    Unit-wise, Forest Park isn't the largest redevelopment project with which the VHFAs been affiliated. A couple of years ago it was involved with the redevelopment of downtown Winooski, which included 200 units, and it's now involved in a project in Shelburne that includes two phases of 40 units each. Still, Carpenter acknowledges it's a substantial effort.

    "When you start talking about a project (of Forest Parks) size, you start talking about a big gap," said Carpenter, whose organization is expected to make up some of the difference in the project cost through federal tax credits.

    The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Vermont Community Development Program are the other two commonly utilized sources of gap funding, but Carpenter said she's hopeful the RHA can meet its goal with the HOPE VI funds.

    "It would bring in a lot of federal money at a time when were very short on state dollars," she said. "It's very important to Rutland, so it is important to the state."

    A history of HOPE

    HOPE VI was started in 1993 out of the recommendations of the National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing, which was then tasked with developing a National Action Plan to address the problem, according to HUDs Web site.

    The commission recommended focusing any effort to address the problem on three areas: physical improvements, management improvements and social and community services.

    "The program is really designed to give communities a tool to revitalize neighborhoods, and residents an opportunity to live in a stable neighborhood," said Kristine Foye, spokeswoman for HUD's New England office.

    How, exactly, it has worked toward that goal has changed significantly over the program's lifetime, as it has endured criticism – most recently from the Bush administration – that the program is too expensive and should be "cut back dramatically or even eliminated," according to the 2007 study "Severely Distressed Public Housing: The Cost of Inaction," by the nonpartisan Urban Institute.

    In its inaugural year, the program awarded a total of more than $500 million to 13 cities, the ones that predictably come to mind at the thought of urban public housing – Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, to name a few. From 1993 to 1999, HOPE VI was operated solely by congressional appropriation; now it's funded at the discretion of the administration. At its lowest funding level in 2006, only four municipalities split $71.6 million. While its funding has incrementally risen, even last year, when the RHA was one of 24 applicants, only six municipalities shared in $97.2 million.

    Since its inception, the program has awarded 243 grants totaling $6 billion, Foye said. For 2009, another $113 million was made available.

    "Basically, the thing to really get across about the HOPE VI funding is its extremely competitive," Foye said.

    RHA optimistic for funding

    Given the sobering frankness of that independent consultants' report of how the state of Forest Park affects both the psyche of its residents and the surrounding community, it's hard to deny that the RHA presents a strong case for why the project should be funded.

    "The Rutland Southwest neighborhood has, over the past 20 years, experienced significant distress and disinvestment in large part due to the existence of the Forest Park Project," it reads. "Often cited as the source of neighborhood crime, the stigma attached to this site has made residency a closely held secret for those who live there."

    It points to statistics for crime originating at Forest Park (but recognizes that much more likely goes unnoticed) and a rise in evictions related to drug activities, and surmises that, combined with "significant prejudice against people of low income," these factors isolate this community from the surrounding neighborhood.

    Moreover, the report notes the number of distressed and blighted properties in close proximity to Forest Park. A list of substandard city properties compiled by the Rutland County Regional Planning Commission found 109 properties; of those, 82 are located within a 1-mile radius of Forest Park.

    "Home sales in this neighborhood are often thwarted by the presence of Forest Park," it reads.

    Still, like many other attempts at rectifying problems in Rutland City that carry a hefty price tag, the plans for Forest Park have caused some residents to balk. Loso's heard the comments that the housing is "good enough" and invites anyone who believes that's the case to view it firsthand.

    "To suggest that somehow people who have lower income should live in sub-standard housing is, in my mind, troubling," Loso said. "Anyone who thinks this property is fine, please come see me. I'm happy to give a tour."

    The RHA will also hold two public meetings this week for anyone in the community who's interested in learning more of the specifics of the HOPE VI application process or the site plan. The first will be held today at 6:30 p.m. during a meeting of the southwest chapter of the city organization Rutland United Neighborhoods at the Vermont Achievement Center. The second will be in the Nella Fox Room of the Rutland Free Library at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

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