Soldier On Dedicates New Development for VeteransBy Tammy Daniels
10:07PM / Friday, October 29, 2010
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A model for helping homeless veterans find a place of their own became a reality on Thursday with the dedication of the $6.1 million Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community.
Gordon Mansfield watches as his wife, Linda, and Peter Dougherty, director of homeless program for the VA, unveil the 'Mansfield Rock' by artist Andrew de Vries.
Some 39 veterans have been selected to move into the one-bedroom and loft-style apartments next to Soldier On's transitional facility off West Housatonic Street. The project broke ground almost exactly a year ago.
"The genius of what we did was we end up essentially with no mortgages on the property," said Soldier On Chief Executive Officer John "Jack" Downing, who conceived and spearheaded the program for limited equity housing. "The veteran's rent will accrue each month in a fund. As they pay it and at the end of every year — after we pay taxes and set aside reserves and do due diligence — the money left over will be divided by 39. That will be his equity. That's about 35 or 40 percent of his rent."
The veterans will take on the responsibility of overseeing the development and how it operates, said Downing, "because we believe adults don't like having people telling them what to do."
The housing project will be overseen by a board of seven, currently lead by Peter LaFayette, president of the Berkshire Bank Foundation, in recognition of the foundation's partnership in getting the project off the ground. Two community members and four veterans living in the new housing make up the rest of the board.
On Thursday, several hundred invited guests and veterans living in the adjacent Soldier On facility walked along the village's "main street," peeked in windows and toured two open units. A number of speakers, including U.S. Rep. John W. Olver, testifed to the persistence and dreams of Downing, the worthiness of the project and the hope that more homeless veterans will have the opportunity to own their own homes.
Steven Como gives Rep. Olver a tour.
"I am absolutely impressed by what I see today," said Olver, who was honored at a dinner later that evening for his work in aiding veterans programs.
The congressman, as chairman of the House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee earmarked $1.7 million toward the project. The rest was paid for through the Federal Home Loan Bank, the state Housing Innovation Fund and other state and federal grants.
The city and local financial centers stepped in to create a fund to help qualified veterans with the $2,500 down payment. Pittsfield and Berkshire Bank donated $25,000 each and Greylock Federal Credit Union, $10,000. The rents will range from $640 to $740, heat and electricity included. The first units will be occupied beginning Nov. 22.
"This is a model for veterans communities across the nation," said Mayor James Ruberto, on hand to welcome 39 new residents to the city.
More than a quarter million veterans are homeless. The nonprofit Soldier On works with veterans suffering from substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues that have led to their homeless and oft hopeless state.
Downing advocates for giving these men and women the opportunity to take responsibility over their lives by providing the support programs and challenges to help them help themselves.
"We deliver our services where they live — social, job skills, medical," said Downing. "It's difficult for people who don't own their own transportation to make appointments, so if you drive the appointments to them you can make it successful."
The village is named for Pittsfield native Gordon Mansfield, a decorated veteran who aided the group's efforts as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. A bronze marker with Mansfield's profile was created by local artist Andrew de Vries.
General Dynamics employees put together 39 house-warming baskets with personal and kitchen items for the new owners
The develop does look like a village, with a "main street" lined by cottagelike homes that empties onto a parking lot.
"We wanted to give it a New England feel," said Steven Como, Solider On's executive vice president, of the peaked roofs and classic siding. A couple of communal barbecue grills are along the path and a coin laundry is tucked between units. The village is also LEED-certifiable and includes rooftop photovoltaic panels.
Windows look onto the street and some units have small decks. All are handicapped accessible and constructed on the concept of "aging place," said Como. "We wanted the veterans to be able, if they wanted, to grow old here."
The village will soon by joined by a smaller transitional facility of 16 units designed for servicewomen and their children. It will be funded by some $750,000 from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Downing dreams big. If this project is successful, he sees another 5,000 units being built over the next three years. Potential sites have already been identified in Leeds and Agawam, and there's interest in Provincetown, Boston and New Mexico.
"I'm just pleased to be a part of it and have the opportunity to do it," said George Sylvia, a board member who'll be moving into a lower level unit next month. The former Marine is now the building manager for the next-door Berkshire Veterans Residence. "It's nice. Just beautiful, beautiful construction. It's going to be the next stage of my life."