MANCHESTER — Fawn Montanye was one of five people in the audience watching the Manchester Housing Task Force begin its existence on Monday afternoon. She watched from her chair in the Kilburn Room as the task force members chose officers to lead them, discussed the work in front of them, and voiced their commitment to finding solutions to the town’s longstanding crisis.
But at one point during the discussion, when the topic turned to affordability and John Burnham discussed the varying income levels that determine that label at the local, state and federal level, Montanye raised her hand and spoke up.
Montanye, a single parent with two children, described how she moved here from Clifton Park, N,.Y., in 2019 to accept a job. After a home in East Dorset didn’t work out, the family moved into a house on Route 30 where she pays $1,800 a month for rent, plus utilities, heat and plowing.
But the lease ends in April, as the house is going on the market, and it’s up in the air whether her daughter will be able to graduate from Burr and Burton Academy in the spring if a living arrangement in a BBA sending town can’t be found.
“I work approximately 60 hours a week with a goal of between 80 and 95 thousand dollars to provide for my children,” Montanye said. “We can’t find a rental under $4,500 a month.”
She’d buy the house where she’s living and turn the downstairs into a one-bedroom apartment, but the seed money to do that isn’t available.
Montanye’s situation underscored what the task force has signed up for: addressing the lack of affordable housing in Manchester. Planning Commission Chair Phil Peterson called it “the most pressing issue that we face.”
The task force was formed following a forum on the housing crisis last fall, organized by Peterson and state Reps. Kathleen James and Seth Bongartz, both serving the Bennington-4 district.
Part of its charge is determining how to turn town-owned property on Depot Street into a mixed used development with multi-family housing units. A request for proposals on the property is due Wednesday.
Member Kevin Nielsen, a contractor, said housing needs to be addressed as a health issue. “When people don’t have shelter, it is a huge stress,” he said. “Having your housing in jeopardy ... is a major source of depression,” he added, noting he was speaking from experience.
The nine-member task force reports to the Planning Commission and will hold its meetings in public. Its charge is to explore a range of affordable housing options in a variety of sites, plan the development of those sites with qualified experts and drive the development of viable selected sites until they are shovel-ready.
A large part of the task force’s purpose will be to work with state organizations, such as the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, to understand and access programs to help fund development of selected projects.
James said she and Bongartz would help serve the task force as liaisons between the task force and the Legislature, as well as state and non-profit agencies such as the Vermont Housing Improvement Program and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.
She also suggested that the task force focus on programs where large amounts of federal dollars are now available, and leverage those funds in the short term while planning for long-term development.
Members elected pharmaceutical training professional Judd Hoffman as chairman, Vermont Country Store administrator Melanie Johnson as vice chair, and Victoria Silsby, a prevention specialist at The Collaborate as secretary, and set tentative calendar of meetings on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month moving forward.
Members, including Hoffman, a 2008 Burr and Burton Academy graduate, Johnson, former Northshire Bookstore co-owner Edward Morrow and Manchester Business Association executive director John Burnham, all spoke to the difficulty businesses have experienced in hiring due to the lack of housing.
Town Assessor Gordon Black noted that some businesses are buying old motels for employees as company housing, but added “quite frankly, living in a motel is not ideal.”
Black, who is also the town’s economic development officer, spoke to the lack of workforce housing, so much so that many town employees do not live within its borders. He also made two important points: the town cannot mandate what private landowners do with their property, and the opportunities for multi-family housing will largely depend on whether a given site has water and sewer service.
“I do very much appreciate all they’re doing,” Montanye said after the meeting. “I hope what they recognize is plans for the future are needed — however, there has to be prioritization of figuring out between now and June who’s really up against housing challenges. … If that group does an assessment now, perhaps that will inform them about what the immediate need is versus what they’re planning for.”