In November 1989, the “pioneers” of our Co-housing community including Don Schramm, Barbara Nolfi, Sharyl Green, Peter Lachowski, Janet Hicks, Clara Bond, and other residents in the Burlington area began gathering for meetings and potlucks as word of interest in forming an urban co-housing community in Burlington began to spread. During this early nascent stage, those with an interest in a co-housing living arrangement had a chance to get to know other prospective members. This core group of founding members began to strategize about how to create a co-housing community. The planning stage was a long process, taking well over a decade. Progress came in fits and starts, and to that core founding group it often seemed there were more setbacks than advances.
Our two major hurdles, which often seemed insurmountable, were not finding a suitable site and not having sufficient financial resources at the ready to purchase suitable property. Often, established non-profit housing developers, whose goals we strongly supported, would get priority from the city in purchasing choice housing sites, leaving us back at square one.
Our group identified and studied 25 potential locations in Burlington. A select few were pursued to see if we could purchase the property and create a preliminary design. All the while, we had to solicit enough commitment from potential residents to get the needed funding. The next few years took us on a long, complex, circuitous and frustrating route. However, every setback was a learning experience that made us all the wiser.
Finally, in 2002, more than a decade after those initial exploratory meetings, there was significant headway, and we became poised to be ready for business. We had a solid core group of three families – Don Schramm and Barbara Nolfi, Joan Knight, Jim Palmer and Marla Emory. A professional team was lined up including an attorney, a development consultant, and an architect.
In 2002, our attorney Thomas Meloni pro bono helped our core group to form the Burlington Co-housing Development, LLC (Limited Liability Corporation). Its purpose was to give us the needed flexibility to act quickly to hold a land option open to make necessary financial deals to bring this project to fruition. Each family put in $65,000 as seed money. This money was at total risk. There were no guarantees that our mission could be accomplished. All of us understood, however, that without this seed money, we would not have a chance.
In 2003, representatives of the LLC approached the City of Burlington, asking for assistance in locating and buying property. Burlington Community and Development Office (CEDO) agreed to help. City officials believed that this project could help the City move forward toward achieving its own long-range plans – including pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, reduced automobile use, and mixed-income neighborhoods. Over the years the core group had educated city officials about co-housing and the concept was well integrated into Burlington’s Master Plan.
In the summer of 2004, we finally secured what we believed to be a perfect site. An opportunity had arisen allowing us to gain control of a suitable piece of land at 180 East Avenue. The City of Burlington purchased this land with the intention of holding it while we got our design, permits and financing together. Finally, we had success after so many earlier failed attempts, and the reason was four letters: CEDO. They saw this as a unique opportunity to buy land using federal financing for affordable residential development.
The land they put under contract to buy was, coincidentally, one we had tried to buy a couple of years earlier. It was all timing. At the earlier date, the landowner had no intention to sell. However, after the owner died, the beneficiary family members who inherited the property put it on the market through a realtor. City officials were notified. The LLC subsequently developed the site and sold prospective units to the first members of Burlington Co-housing East Village.
2005 was a milestone year. This was the year the site, buildings, and landscaping were designed. There were many meetings and potlucks in the basement of the Fletcher Free Library and the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church, and decisions were made in rapid succession.
Meanwhile the LLC applied for permits, and made design changes required by various boards and councils of the City. We obtained a $420,000 line of credit from the Cooperative Fund of New England to carry us up to the beginning of construction.
In 2006 we applied for a construction loan from Vermont Housing Finance Agency. Twenty four families put money into escrow to assure the bankers that we had the necessary down payment money. Once the loan was approved in July, the families moved their escrow money into membership of the Burlington Co-housing Development LLC. We then closed on the loan, purchased the land from the City of Burlington and with Wright & Morrissey as our general contractors began construction in August. The first significant event was the moving of the 1940’s two story barn to the far end of the land by Norm Messier who had moved a church for Don Schramm thirty years earlier.
In October, 2007, construction was finally completed and a temporary certificate of occupancy was issued. Units (including shares of the common spaces) become available to purchase requiring a flurry of all the necessary paperwork. A Public Offering (PO) was drafted, describing what was for sale. Potential buyers were given the PO to take to their lawyers and lenders. A purchase and sale agreement had to be signed along with financial readiness statements. Fortunately, the individual units sold at a rapid rate that fall. Twenty four of the thirty two units were essentially presold to the LLC members.
Although it is financially challenging to limit the sale price of units to amounts specified by the Champlain Housing Trust (CHT), the group stuck fast to its mission of mixed-income residents as a priority goal. Nine units were reserved for sale to buyers whose income was 80% or less of Vermont’s median income. We received from the City and the State over $600,000 as down payment grants for those nine units. The other 23 units were still affordable in comparison to other co-housing communities. One of our distinct advantages of being in a city is that we are within walking, biking, and bus-riding distance of almost all local destinations.
In 2008, the Burlington Co-housing East Village Owners Association (BCEVOA) assumed key responsibilities from the LLC. Our community’s daily operations would be handled through a self-governing process. BCEVOA met as a whole twice a month, and its committees and task groups meet more often. The workload was intense. Six more units were sold within six months. However two units needed to be rented for several years.
The final two units have long since been sold, and the LLC, having served its purpose, was dissolved. Our self-managed community has matured and stabilized. We’ve experienced very low turn-over in units. Virtually every resident here is also an owner of the unit with a vested and personal interest in seeing our community succeed. Routines and committees have been established and our budgeting process is in place. We are proud of our upkeep and maintenance, and love showing off our little oasis in Burlington to friends, family, and fellow co-housers visiting us from other areas of the country.
THE NEW BEGINNING
Like any community, residents periodically leave, and new people join us. We’ve had and still have an eclectic mix of people from different areas of the country and from all different backgrounds and occupations. Everyone brings their own talents and adds their own special flavor to the community. However, time marches on. Our founders have aged, and many are now in their late 70s or 80s. Sadly, some have had to leave for medical reasons and others have died. We’ve also experienced the other part of the life cycle – the joy of three births.
All in all, our future looks great. We love the co-housing living arrangement where neighbors look after and truly care about one another. And, of course, we love being located in the best small city and most vibrant and fun college town in the world.