Residents at Wharf Lane apartments in Burlington could be kicked out of their homes by next year, and now their plight is getting some additional attention.
Those residents have now started an online petition to gain public support and sympathy for their situation.
The petition "urges the owners of Wharf Lane Apartments to work cooperatively with Vermont Housing Finance Agency, Burlington Housing Authority, City of Burlington and other public and private interests to maintain the 37 apartments at 57 Maple Street in Burlington as affordable housing."
As reported in Seven Days several weeks ago ("Will Burlington's Affordable Housing Sell to the Highest Bidder?"), about 44 people could lose their apartments if the building's owner — Pizzigalli Properties — decides to sell the building on the private market, rather than keeping it perpetually affordable.
The residents of Wharf Lane apartments, located on lower Maple Street, have annual incomes in the $12,000 range. Many are elderly or people with disabilities.
Wharf Lane is one of thousands of affordable housing complexes built 30 years ago by the private sector using subsidized mortgages and rental subsidies provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. At the end of its mortgage, Wharf Lane developers have the option to sell the publicly subsidized housing complex to the highest bidder on the private market
Pizzigalli is currently in talks with the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, which has a first option to buy the property, to hammer out sale terms.
However, the sales talks have hit a snag.
A small sinkhole has developed in the parking lot and until its cause can be determined by engineers, VHFA and Pizzigalli are holding off on a property appraisal, said Sarah Carpenter, VHFA's executive director.
"Until they can figure out what caused the sinkhole, which would impact the appraisal, we are holding off on ordering the appraisal," said Carpenter.
After receiving the appraisal, VHFA has 90 days to act on its option to buy. It gets another 90 days to pull financing together and get approval from HUD.
But that still might not be enough time to seal the deal. The combination of a short time frame, less federal financing for affordable housing and the presence of a motivated buyer is likely to complicate things for the VHFA.If VHFA were to purchase the property, it would work with Burlington Housing Authority to keep the apartments affordable.
Another interested buyer is Champlain College, which is looking for additional housing for its students.
City officials and nonprofit housing advocates have tried, unsuccessfully, to get the college to back off of its interest. The Pizzagallis gave Champlain College officials an extensive tour of the building in April.
Champlain College reduced an on-campus housing project by 50 units in response to neighbors’ concerns. Wharf Lane could house up to 70 students, and it is a quick walk or shuttle ride from the main campus, college officials told Seven Days in May.
College officials and Mayor Bob Kiss are expected to meet and discuss further the college's needs and the needs of city residents to try and find a better balance.
If Wharf Lane residents do have to move, they’ll get vouchers through HUD’s Section 8 program, which cover a portion of their monthly rent. Waiting lists for homes eligible for Section 8 program can be lengthy.
The transition from public to private housing doesn’t always go smoothly. A six-unit apartment building — Eno Apartments — on Maple Street was converted from affordable housing to private ownership last May.
Residents have until July 12 to move, but there’s a problem. The Section 8 vouchers expected months ago only arrived in May. That leaves residents roughly 60 days to find a new home.
Lisa Stearns, an Eno resident, said not having a voucher makes it difficult to prove to a new landlord that you can afford the apartment. Plus, Stearns’ son and her husband are disabled, and at a minimum need to be on a first-floor apartment, preferably with a ramp.
“We’ve been looking for a couple of months, but without a voucher you can’t move, and there isn’t much available right now. So, we could be totally screwed,” said Stearns.
The property owners, on the other hand, are free and clear. After benefiting from an arrangement that guaranteed their mortgage payments with federal dollars, they are finally in a position to cash in.
Stearns’ three-bedroom apartment has been renting for $930 a month as a subsidized unit. In July, the rent will jump to $1950.