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Can the Taft Building Be Used For Housing?

Local Matters


Published December 13, 2005 at 11:32 p.m.

BURLINGTON -- Where there's a will, there's a delay. That's what City Attorney Joe McNeil reminded the Burlington School Board last week. At issue was a proposal to sell the Taft and Ira Allen buildings in a move that would save the district $450,000 in operating expenses. The district currently faces a $600,000 deficit, and projects a shortfall of between $1.2 and $1.7 million next year.

Unfortunately for the board, when 1920s Burlington Judge Elihu Taft bequeathed the resources to construct the "Taft" building, his will stipulated the property could only be used for educational purposes, or for housing aged indigent men. Bottom line: The city can't sell the property unless a probate judge determines that the sale and proceeds comply with Taft's wishes.

This isn't the first time the terms of Taft's will have come up. According to McNeil, the last time was in the 1980s, when the district wanted to lease out office space in the building, and the Chittenden County Probate Court approved the deal.

The court has never been asked to rule on a possible sale of the building, however. McNeil says he won't begin those legal proceedings unless the board takes that decision, which is not likely to happen soon. In anticipation of public controversy, the board wants to appoint a 15-member task force to study the issue. According to Amy Werbel, a school board member from Ward 5, the task force would comprise three board members, a city councilor, one representative from the city's Community and Economic Development Office, five teachers or principals and five parents or community activists. The group would report back to the board chair by May 1, 2006. At press time, the board was expected to vote on the task force idea at its December 13 meeting.

One option, says Werbel, would be to sell the property and use the proceeds to establish a trust fund to improve the educational opportunities for low-income students. The building could also be sold and converted into low-income, multi-generational housing. However, since its estimated market value is between $2 and $3.5 million, it's unlikely a nonprofit housing agency could afford it, Werbel says.

Is there a demand for housing among Chittenden County's aged indigent men? Rita Markley, executive director of the Committee on Temporary Shelter, says the greater need comes from poor working families. Of the 480 adult homeless singles COTS housed last year, only 15 were over the age of 62, she notes. But in the month of October, 16 families were being sheltered at COTS, and another 33 families were staying in emergency overflow motels throughout Chittenden County.

"If the number of homeless elderly men were climbing half as rapidly as homeless families, we'd go to bat and start organizing right now," says Markley. "We've never had anything remotely like these numbers before."

COTS has not yet taken a position on the Taft building, according to Markley. However, she points out that in September, 65 homeless students started school in Burlington. In one respect, she says, turning the Taft Building into low-income housing could be interpreted as serving an "educational need."

As Markley puts it, "You can reasonably argue that when children are staying in motels 25 miles from their school, or their families are so strained by the upheaval of being homeless that they can't get them to school, you must meet their basic needs first."

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