Sarah Carpenter has long been on the frontlines of
delivering affordable housing in Vermont.
For the past 10 years, she has helped fund projects
across the state as executive director of the Vermont
Housing Finance Agency (VHFA), earning several honors,
including the Leahy Leadership Award, which recognizes
efforts to alleviate homelessness in the state.
She tells us more about herself and
what's new at VHFA.
Q: How did you get started in affordable
A: My first jobs were in social work.
It was there I learned how hard it is to assist a family or
an aging or disabled person if they
don't have a decent, safe,
affordable place to live. We really needed to solve that
Q: What was your big break?
A: I had worked in the area of housing
and services, and when I returned to Burlington after being
in graduate school I took a position as executive director
of Cathedral Square Corp., a small nonprofit interested in
growing its housing development and management. They
offered me the opportunity to develop one of the first tax
credit developments in Vermont. I really
didn't know any better, and
this quirky new program seemed like the only game
available, so I jumped right in. Learning how to put
together and finance an affordable housing development was
much more intriguing than I expected, and
it's kept me interested ever
At the same time, in the
mid-'80s, I became very aware
of how hard and expensive it was to buy a home. I had the
opportunity to be a founding board member of one of the
first community land trusts in the country, which
cultivated my interest in creative homeownership options
and stewarding public investment.
Q: How are housing needs changing in
A: Households are
smaller—65 percent include one
or two persons; only 32 percent include children. There are
many boomers out there who may need to economically
downsize, and they are not at all ready for traditional
Q: Give us a housing statistic or fact to think
A: In 2007, Vermont had the highest
rate of homelessness in New England. We can have a pretty
harsh climate, and you might have a long way to travel for
your job; how do you efficiently deal with rural
homelessness and keep a sense of community?
Q: What has VHFA recently done that other
housing finance agencies can learn from?
A: A few years ago, VHFA went to a
two-year rolling housing credit allocation process. We did
this, in part, because we keep seeing the same good
applications reapplying. They met all of our top priorities
but were told to come back to the next round for very minor
reasons. Projects would be tweaked, re-underwritten, and
come back for re-review; this was a lot of extra work for
our staff and Board of Commissioners. We now work with our
developers early on. If the projects meet all the threshold
and top-tier criteria, the board can award (or not) a
letter of intent to receive credits. There is some risk
that a project will not receive credits in the time frame
they want. On the other hand, they can go ahead and make
business decisions to spend resources to further the
development process, and VHFA can work with the developer
to make sure there are no surprises in meeting the
conditions of the award. The key to this has been
VHFA's ability to work very
closely with other state and federal funding agencies to
make sure credit allocation timing and requirements do not
become impediments to drawing down other resources.
Q: When you visit an affordable housing
development, what do you look for?
A: I always look to see if I would or
could live there at any point in my own life. As a young
mother with a toddler, a single individual, or as an aging
person—would this be home for
me? I'm a great advocate of
universal design that could potentially meet all those
Q: What's the best
piece of advice that you have received?
A: Always like and respect the people
you work for; if you
Q: Who would you like to meet?
A: There have been so many great
leaders in history; it's hard
to name just one. Today, I would love to meet Barack Obama
and find out what really sustained him and what his
personal fears were through the overwhelming task of being
elected president of the United Sates.
Q: What do you listen to when
you're in the car?
A: I'm a
great fan of public radio, but when you
can't get that, I like (not too
weighty) stories on
CafÃ© with Dave and Morley; The
Thin Man series with Nick and Nora are very
Q: What's next for
Sarah Carpenter and VHFA?
A: I do hope that we can get and keep
housing on the national agenda. I would like to be part of
that. It's very frustrating
that it's taken a financial
crisis to get attention; although folks are still not
looking at all the good work being done by the state HFAs.
Vermont will continue to be a breeding ground for what can
work well by combining a variety of scarce resources to
create small livable communities. We just need to move that
much faster to a national scale.