Groundbreaking habitat project launched

MANCHESTER - Ground was broken Saturday on an affordable housing project that represents a new departure for the area's chapter of Habitat for Humanity, a nationwide nonprofit organization whose purpose is to build low-cost housing for those who might otherwise be shut out of home ownership.

The long-planned project on Jennifer Lane will involve up to 22 new homes. About half of the homes will be built through Habitat for Humanity, while the rest will be constructed by Vermont Traditional builders, a private contractor.

Typically, the organization constructs new houses one by one, completing each one before moving on to the next, said Richard Malley, the executive director of the Bennington County chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

Because of its scope and scale, the Jennifer Lane project required the support of town officials and sufficient money in hand to complete the acquisition of the land.

"When it's done, we'll all feel very proud," he said during the ground breaking ceremonies Saturday afternoon. "This is a Habitat project, but by the community, for the community and of the community."

As a small crowd of onlookers watched, members of the Lewis family, who will be the first occupants of the first home of the eventual 22 houses, along with several other people instrumental in bringing the project to fruition, took turns turning shovelfuls of dirt on the small wooded lot on Jennifer Lane. "To be able to raise our family in a house with a yard in a healthy and safe environment is all we ever wanted," said Michelle Lewis during the groundbreaking ceremonies.

The project got a big boost from the Hunter Family Foundation, which gave $500,000 to Habitat to finance infrastructure components such as septic systems, waterlines and a new road that will have to be built. Those sorts of aspects may not be the most visible parts of a housing project, but are crucial for the success of a project such as the one contemplated for Jennifer Lane, Malley said.

Irene Hunter, together with her husband, James, have made numerous philanthropic donations to area institutions in recent years. This housing initiative was of great interest to her mother, said daughter Susan Hunter.

The scale of the project was intriguing, and she enlisted the support of her other siblings to pull together a "transformative" financial contribution, Susan Hunter said.

"You think about the difference that makes in the community, about the families that are buying their groceries here, supporting all the services here; it's just that much more that's being put into the local economy by people who live and work here," she said.

Since the land needed to be improved upon as well as purchased, she and her siblings thought that targeting those costs would be a good way to help move the project along, she said.

Before the shovels turned over the first pieces of dirt, a series of speakers addressed the audience gathered in the wood lot, recounting the series of steps that led to this point.

Bill West was a member of an affordable housing committee formed in 1989, when concerns were beginning to surface that the commercial growth of Manchester was squeezing out low and moderate income-earners from being able to afford a home within the town. The formal start of this project represented a milestone in a more than two-decades long effort to bring housing costs within reach of ordinary working people, he said.

"I have no doubt this project will flourish," he said. "The families who will eventually live in the Jennifer Lane area will have an easier time reaching home ownership because of Habitat for Humanity."

West was followed to the microphone by state representative and former town manager Jeff Wilson and the current planning director and zoning administrator, Lee Krohn. Both had played roles in helping to push forward this and other low-cost housing projects, including those sponsored by the Bennington-based Regional Affordable Housing Corporation.

When he started as town manager in 1986, affordable housing was already being viewed as a serious problem, and it remains one today, Wilson said. "We've seen some progress, particularly with multiple family projects," he said. "The real problem has been trying to make single family housing affordable."

Krohn noted how he and then-town manager Pete Webster had called the Jennifer Lane site to the attention of Habitat officials back in 2006. One of the property owners at Jennifer Lane had called him to ask for suggestions on what to do with the property, and that conversation led to Habitat for Humanity, he said.

"The 1989 study was important to set the stage for future opportunities," he said.

Habitat's plan for the development was later approved by town officials in 2009. The project received its Act 250 permit the following year, Malley said.

In addition, a wide range of other community members and businesses have been part of a large partnership that made the project possible, he said. Work is expected to start on the home that will eventually be occupied by the Lewis family next month. The application process for families interested in being considered for the next home to be constructed will probably begin in November, he said.


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