Rutland’s Forest Park housing project has been undergoing a $22 million affordable housing makeover that many say has turned a problem into an asset.
For years, neighbors described Forest Park – a 7-acre cluster of apartment buildings that housed 300 low-income residents – as a troublesome eyesore. The police even had a substation there.
Granted, public housing built in the 1960s and '70s is not known for its architectural charm. There are the concrete high-rises that you see in just about every large city and also the more blocky two-story type buildings.
Rutland had both types, says Kevin Loso, director of the Rutland Housing Authority which oversees the new housing complex.
“I think one of the philosophies back in the early days was that you did not want to build public housing in a way that would compete with the open market,” he says.
Forest Park, with 75 apartments, was one of Rutland’s largest public housing projects. It was built in 1971 and looked it – with nondescript brick buildings, identical cement stoops and minimal landscaping.
“It was very isolated from the rest of the community,” Loso says. “You could only enter it from an access road.”
By 2002, he says they began to look at how to make Forest Park more energy-efficient, more integrated in the community, more attractive and more diverse.
But finding funding would take years. The land lacked proper drainage – a major obstacle – and the old apartment buildings contained asbestos, which though contained, made remodeling cost-prohibitive.
So Loso says they started from scratch, tearing down the old and building something entirely different.
“We actually moved a city street, to accommodate development on both sides,” he says.
That made the development look more like a regular neighborhood, says Loso. When it’s finished, traffic will be able to pass through, connecting the apartments to the rest of the city.
The first 33 units were completed in 2011. Twenty-three more opened in 2015, and construction of the final 22 units began this month.
While most of the two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments are federally subsidized, Loso says about 20 percent are rented at fair market value.
“In all honesty I was a little concerned at the way we would be able market those market-rate units,” admits Loso. “Not knowing whether people who could afford those rents would want to live in this community.”
But he says the market-rate apartments were the first to lease.
“That’s so exciting and so consistent with our goal to get a much wider demographic of incomes, ages and family composition and ethnicities,” Loso says.
Rents vary from about $100 a month up to about $800 a month. All the units are full, and Loso says there’s currently a six-to-nine-month waiting list.
Besides getting rid of the old faux brick buildings, Loso says they also ditched the old name.
“Now people don’t live at 'Forest Park' – they live at 15 Hickory Street or 10 Juneberry Lane," he says.
Deborah Ramirez opens the door to her apartment, one of the newer units on the ground floor.
“This is the living room. It’s kind of a combo living room, dining room and a pass-through kitchen,” she says, walking down the hall. “And what’s really great about this apartment is it's handicap accessible.”
Ramirez has three sons who all suffer from Christianson syndrome, a debilitating genetic disorder, and require special care.
Ramirez used to live in an older unit in Forest Park and says she never really felt safe there and admits there was a stigma.
“Oh yes, when I lived over at Forest Park I was almost embarrassed to say where I lived to be honest. The people were nice, don’t get me wrong, but to say that I lived in subsidized housing, I felt that I was less than,” she says, nodding.
But now she feels safer, and with the new tree-lined streets and sidewalks, the front porches and the smartly painted duplexes that don’t all look the same, Ramirez says the whole place feels different.
“I don’t even feel the need to say it’s subsidized. It's like, I live in Hickory Street Apartments and people come by and say, 'Wow, your apartment's really nice.' So the pride of living here versus living there, I’m not ashamed,” she says smiling.
Half a block away, Kim Kish admits she thought twice about buying a home so close to Forest Park, where she says she used to see a lot of people just hanging around.
“I was worried at first because I knew there was a lot of action around here in the past," Kish says. "But it turned out to be very nice.”
Mary Jean Costello, a retired teacher who’s lived in southwest Rutland her whole life, couldn’t agree more.
“I’m seeing more young, diverse families walking in and out of Hickory Street, which is a big plus,” Costello says.
Despite the project’s high price tag, Costello considers it money well spent and would love to see more such developments.
It may be too soon to assess the economic impact of the Hickory Street Apartments on the surrounding neighborhood, but a 2015 national study by the Stanford Business School found that over 10 years, new housing projects in poorer neighborhoods increased surrounding home prices by 6.5 percent and reduced crime.
Officials with the Rutland Police Department say calls for service in that part of the city have definitely gone down.
And the city tax coffers are benefiting. While Forest Park was tax-exempt, the new Hickory Street units are generating more than $60,000 a year in property taxes – an amount that will increase after the final units are finished in September 2018.
Rutland City Tax Assessor Barry Keefe says the Hickory Street Apartments are a big enhancement to the neighborhood, and Keefe says he’s noticed a drop in the number of homeowners in the area contesting their city assessments.
“I’d like a nickel for every time someone has said to me, 'Well there’s no way I can sell my house for what you have it assessed for because there is Forest Park there; the neighborhood is bad, there’s people hanging around that are doing bad things.' And I’d hear that on a regular basis,” says Keefe.
But, he adds, “That has gone away.”
Loso says Rutland has a homeless problem, like much of the state. The new complex has taken an approach to address this issue.
"So in the third phase of this project, we've reserved six units for families who have experienced homelessness," says Loso. "And we have a partnership with the Homeless Prevention Center in Rutland to support those folks not only in obtaining housing, but keeping it. So that's exciting."
But what about the low-income families who were forced to move out of Forest Park during construction?
Loso says they received federal vouchers they could use in privately owned apartments – something he says created even more affordable housing in Rutland. And Loso says they expect to have two additional building lots available after the final phase of apartments is completed.
“We hope to work with Habitat for Humanity to build even more affordable housing there,” he says.
So if this housing project is such a big success story, why not do more?
“Funding,” says Loso. “There just isn’t enough.”
He says the $22 million needed for this project came from a long list of local, state and federal sources and took years to put together. Loso says the majority came from community development block grants that President Donald Trump wants to do away with.
That’s incredibly disappointing, he says. He points down the street at the new playground and community center which houses a Head Start classroom and a Boys & Girls Club.
"Look at all the flowers you see on the front porches," he says proudly. “That money helped turn a public housing project into a neighborhood.”