BURLINGTON -- A coalition of social-service agencies plans to turn a long-neglected historic house in downtown Burlington into a transitional home for women being released from prison. Supporters tout the project as an innovative and cost-effective way to help nonviolent female offenders return to society. But the project faces opposition from members of the business community, who argue that newly released inmates shouldn't be housed in the heart of Burlington's retail district. They want the city to hold a public hearing before the project proceeds.
The "Northern Lights House," at 76-78 Cherry Street, would house up to 10 women for a minimum of six months; The average length of stay is expected to be about a year. The home would be run by the Northern Lights Consortium, a collaboration of the Howard Center, Mercy Connections, Northern New England Tradeswomen, Vermont Children's Aid Society, the Lund Family Center, Women Helping Battered Women, the Community Justice Center and the Burlington Housing Authority.
Tiffany Bluemle, executive director of Northern New England Tradeswomen, explains that each member of the consortium brings to the table a relevant area of expertise. Her organization would provide employment and life-skills training. BHA, which owns the house, has expertise in operating affordable housing.
Each year approximately 335 former inmates are returned to Chittenden County, about 12 percent of whom are women. The vast majority of those have been imprisoned on drug-related offenses, Bluemle points out. About two-thirds were unemployed at the time of their arrest. Many are single mothers with limited education and job training who resume life in their home communities with untreated mental health issues, substance-abuse problems or learning disabilities. Inability to find or maintain stable employment and affordable housing contributes to their high rate of recidivism, Bluemle adds.
Currently, there's a statewide shortage of transitional housing specifically tailored for women. An estimated 90 to 100 female offenders are in prison beyond their eligible release date because there's no appropriate place for them to live, says Karen Lawson, the Department of Corrections' housing coordinator. The DOC awarded Northern Lights Consortium a $30,000 planning grant in July 2005 to find a suitable place to house women offenders returning to Chittenden County.
The DOC and the Northern Lights Consortium both consider the Cherry Street site ideal. It's within easy walking distance to public transportation, employment, the courthouses, the Burlington Probation and Parole Office, the Department of Health and other social services. Moreover, the house, which has been vacant for a decade and needs renovation, isn't located in the middle of a residential neighborhood, but abuts the Catholic Church and sits across the street from a parking garage.
These same attributes are fueling the downtown business community's opposition to the project. Several weeks ago, the Burlington Business Association sent its members a "position paper" outlining concerns, from security and public safety issues to increased demands on city services. The paper questions the wisdom of housing newly released offenders so close to the state's highest concentration of bars, nightclubs, liquor stores -- and criminal-justice offices that "are frequented daily by individuals with a history of drug abuse, dealing and other criminal activities."
The BBA also argues that the Northern Lights House would have a detrimental impact on the economic vitality of downtown. It would remove valuable real estate from the tax rolls and compromise efforts to revitalize Cherry Street. Currently, about $12 million in federal transportation money is earmarked for improvements to Church Street and the surrounding blocks. On Cherry Street, the plan is to move the bus station and add trees and sidewalks -- improvements are in keeping with the new Marriott hotel being built at the corner of Cherry and Battery Streets.
"It would make a lot more sense for the Cherry Street corridor to be thought of as an economic driver, not as a place for social services," says BBA Executive Director Nancy Wood. "We see that as a very important link to the waterfront."
Wood points out that there's been no public review to solicit feedback from the community. Speaking for her members, she says an economic impact study and a public hearing on the project is called for.
But Paul Dettman, executive director of the Burlington Housing Authority, says he's surprised by the business community's reaction. He notes that this house was vacant, neglected and vandalized for about a decade, and was once slated for demolition. He says the building is ideal for transitional housing for a number of reasons, from its internal size -- the house has more than six bedrooms -- to its affordable price. The BHA acquired the property from the Catholic Church for $186,000 and will likely invest another $484,000 in renovations.
"I would think that a nicely restored historic building will be a nice addition to downtown," Dettman says. The cost of operating the house will be about $300,000 per year.
Dettman says many of the objections raised by the BBA are unfounded or can be easily addressed. He notes that the Northern Lights House will not create a new influx of female offenders coming into Burlington, but will be populated by women who were originally from Chittenden County and will be released in the community regardless -- minus many of the services this house would provide.
Moreover, the house will be staffed 24 hours a day and all its carefully screened residents will be there on conditional release. If they violate house rules, they can be sent back to prison immediately.
Dettman also points out that implementation of this project would not require a change in zoning. That means it doesn't need the review or approval of the Burlington City Council or its planning and zoning department.