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 housing?
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 problem first.
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 since.
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 Vermont?
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 seniors housing.
Q: Give us a housing statistic or fact to think about.
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 needs.
Q: What's the best piece of advice that you have received?
A: Always like and respect the people you work for; if you don't—move on.
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 tape—Stewart McLean's Vinyl CafÃ© with Dave and Morley; The Thin Man series with Nick and Nora are very entertaining.
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.