Shires Housing’s latest project, Monument View Apartments, has created a backlash from local residents the likes of which Bennington has rarely seen.
Planned for the area once slated to become part of the condominiums between Silver and South streets, this 24-unit subsidized housing development has many town residents -- not just its immediate neighbors -- very concerned. Bennington seems to have reached a tipping point and a thoughtful resolution of the controversy surrounding Mountain View Apartments could help restore balance.
One reasonable question is why these units cost so much to build. With a price tag of $5.5 million, the cost per unit comes in at just under $230,000. A realtor friend did some research for me and found the average sale price for all types of homes in Bennington between the first of the year and the end of June was $155,448. Currently at nearby Nathaniel Court there are nine units for sale ranging in price from $99,000 to $133,000. Those figures certainly make Shires’ low income housing seem quite out of line with the local housing market and it seems fair to ask why. The answer to that question may involve the high costs associated with regulation and permitting and help explain why affordable housing is difficult to come by in Vermont in general.
Another concern is how such a project could impact local property owners economically. Shires requested that Bennington accept a $700,000 grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and the Select Board became the conduit through which that money could be accepted and turned over to Shires. The rest of the project will be funded through the sale of tax credits. In other words, all of its funding is somehow connected to government and taxation. Meanwhile, private landlords make improvements and mortgage payments with their own money and compete for tenants against an opponent with a substantial monetary advantage. In fact, their tax contributions help to fund their competitor! As is so often the case when government and government-dependent organizations interfere with and distort the market, the victims of their purported benevolent actions are hidden from view. That does not make their disadvantage and distress any less real, though.
The impact may be more subtle, but no less critical, for Bennington’s homeowners. Again, this effect would be harder to observe and quantify, but is nonetheless real. There are already a large number of vacant homes and unoccupied apartments in our town. New, subsidized housing units will only exacerbate that problem. The longer these homes and apartments remain empty the more likely they will be neglected and fall into disrepair. This won’t help adjacent homeowners or housing prices in Bennington. Neither will it do anything positive for Bennington’s image.
I suspect, however, that the emotional reactions to this project come in large part from two underlying concerns. The first is a sense that Bennington is out of balance economically and the Shires project does nothing to restore that balance. Bennington is and always has been mixed economically. Those of us who choose to live here do not do so because we want to live in a bubble. We understand small town living offers limited resources but endless opportunities to interact with people with diverse backgrounds and thus develop understanding, appreciation and compassion for those who live in different circumstances. The growing number of town residents dependent on government support, however, is cause for concern. Many people in the community are starting to ask some very valid questions about what Bennington’s future might look like.
The other concern has to do with political balance and how responsive town government is to those it serves. That there has been an overwhelmingly negative reaction to this project is beyond dispute, yet neither the town manager nor the majority of Select Board members seem disturbed by the direction many see Bennington’s future taking. A very large group of working, tax-paying homeowners and citizens has asked the town to withdraw its support for this project yet, as of Monday night, that doesn’t look likely. If strongly-presented citizen opinion is not respected and honored at the local level of government is there really any hope that we have a voice in Montpelier or Washington D.C.?
We citizens tend to get lazy. We tell ourselves we can leave things in the hands of our government leaders, that they have our interests at heart and will do what is best for our town, our state, our nation. Yet, like the empty homes and apartments of Bennington, all can suffer from our neglect. Sometimes, and this is one of them, we are reminded self-government requires a careful balance between freedom and responsibility. In order to work our republican form of government requires an active and engaged citizenry; we have to be that. If the proposed Mountain View Apartments ultimately helps the people of Bennington more vigorously participate in the process of addressing problems and formulating solutions it will have accomplished a far greater purpose than even its proponents could have imagined.
Audrey Pietrucha is on the executive board of Vermonters for Liberty. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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