With the opening last week of 18 new affordable downtown apartments, in space that had remained empty and lifeless for, amazingly, nearly 80 years, Downstreet Housing & Community Development and Housing Vermont, buoyed and financed by a roster of partnering organizations, have helped make Montpelier a more whole, fully integrated and welcoming community.

It’s a change for the good. Montpelier is a beautiful little city, the country’s smallest state capital, and probably its quaintest. Not surprisingly — because state capitals attract a high proportion of professionals and well-educated residents who can compete in a comparatively costly housing market — there’s not a lot of room or opportunity for people of lesser means. And those can be all kinds of people: folks with disabilities, people who are income-eligible for housing-assistance programs, and young people with entry-level jobs and long, productive lives ahead of them — future owners, perhaps, of some of those fine old homes in Montpelier’s residential neighborhoods, who for now just need a secure and comfortable place where they can get started.

The 18 new units on the second and third floors of the French Block on Main Street, above Aubuchon Hardware, aren’t family housing. There are 16 one-bedroom, and two efficiency, apartments. Square footage is modest, but attention to historical details, modern energy-efficiency measures, and features like high ceilings and light shafts (an interesting concept) make for attractive living spaces. It will be interesting, over time, to see who settles in: single occupants almost exclusively? Young couples? Elderly couples?

Housing opportunities for all kinds of people have become even more constrained because many once-elegant family homes in the city have been turned into offices for state agencies, law firms or other organizations doing business with state government. Downstreet’s property management staff reports that Montpelier’s vacancy rate is virtually zero. In a market that tight, it’s entirely predictable who will lose out in the squeeze to find housing.

That’s a loss not only for those who are unable to find quarters, but for the city itself. A healthy urban (if Montpelier can be called urban) community is a diverse community, one that brings people of different backgrounds together. This responds more effectively to everyone’s needs — for some, the need for stable, subsidized living spaces, for others an apartment close to necessary services; and for workers and their employers (local businesses and state agencies), housing that helps attract and keep a stable workforce.

The French Block apartments will not only help provide diversity in the downtown setting, they will exemplify diversity in their own tenant population. Among the 18 living units are four that will rent at market rates (presently $875/month) and five that will be set aside for people on the road back from homelessness. Alison Friedkin, Downstreet’s director of real estate development, explains that eligible candidates for these units will be people identified by, and already involved with, service providers who are helping them address the issues that contributed to their homelessness. Stable housing, with case-appropriate subsidies, can be life-altering. Their units in the French Block will not be transitory; like the other tenants, they’ll have the right to stay in those apartments indefinitely. Whenever they leave, those units will be reserved for others recovering from homelessness.

Of this mix, Friedkin says, “Our goal is to create a downtown neighborhood that’s representative of the world at large.” This approach compares favorably to housing “projects” that, however well-intentioned, isolate what might be described as social strata from each other, and thus perpetuate an American caste system.

Of equal importance is that these units have made use of downtown space, following the tenets of “smart growth” that concentrate human habitation in existing settlements. It takes cars off the road, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, and, if it doesn’t reduce forest and habitat fragmentation, at least it doesn’t worsen it.

Downstreet and Housing Vermont, both longtime contributors of affordable housing in the region, have tried to rehabilitate the French Block since 2010, encountering one obstacle after another. The task only got more challenging as the yawning space, silent since the days of World War II, got older and older. Finally, by pulling together impressive contributions for the $6.1 million project from state and federal agencies, local lending sources and the City of Montpelier itself, their persistence paid off. The partners all deserve our thanks and appreciation.

These are only 18 units — small ones, at that. The redevelopment of the upper stories of the French Block won’t change the world. It won’t even substantially change Montpelier. But it’s an important step in the right direction, and step by step is how we reach our goals.

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