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Madelyn Lazorchak, Communications Writer11/10/2022

America's veterans have given their service to the country, and across the nation, NeighborWorks network organizations are working to ensure they have a safe place to call home. In the last fiscal year, 145 NeighborWorks network organizations created or preserved at least one home where the client was a veteran or active duty service member. Ninety-two network organizations reported set-aside units for veterans or active duty service members in their rental portfolio in the last quarter of the year.

The school before the renovation. PHOTO/CBA
In Dracut, Massachusetts, a home where veterans are given rental preference received national attention this year when "This Old House," a television home improvement show that documents home renovations, followed the transformation of a former primary school. A NeighborWorks network organization, Coalition for a Better Acre (CBA), took on the $4.6 million redevelopment, collaborating with the town of Dracut, MassHousing, MA Department of Housing and Community Development, Pentucket Bank and others. They transformed the historic building into apartments for nine families. Two thirds of the families include veterans.

"It operated as a school for 80 years," says Russell Pandres, senior project manager for CBA, of the former Dracut Centre School. The organization's research included review of primary source historical records such as town meeting minutes from the late 1890s, records from the Dracut school system, and information from the Dracut Historical Society to help obtain historic tax credits awards for historic buildings. "We've had experience developing other schools into affordable homes. "CBA was awarded development rights and pulled together the financing."
The school after the renovation into veterans-preference housing. PHOTO/CBA

Among the residents is a woman who went to second grade in the school and now lives there with her husband, who is a veteran. She walks by her former classroom each day, she told "This Old House."

"We understand that veterans and veterans' households face housing insecurities that other households do not," Pandres says. "Creating a veteran community is important to breaking down barriers of isolation among veterans who have returned from service." 

CBA also connected tenants with supportive services, including veterans service agencies to make sure residents had the resources they needed to help navigate veteran benefits opportunities. The nonprofit has done the same with other properties they've developed, including the Gerson building, which has 44 veterans-preference units, and Welcome Home, which has 27.
One of the quilts made for the veterans. PHOTO/CBA

Since "This Old House" focused on the  renovations over multiple episodes, CBA has received several calls from community members, prompting staff to host a second open house. A quilting guild also saw the program and made quilts for some of the residents.

"We're getting some community support – it's very organic," Pandres says. His advice for other organizations that may take on historic adaptive reuse? "Plan early."

'We want to honor them'

Oregon's NeighborWorks Umpqua gave priority residency at Deer Creek Village apartments to veterans coming out of homelessness. That was one of the stipulations when a family gifted the nonprofit 14 acres. By late last year, the apartments were filled with veterans, disabled veterans and disabled and formerly homeless civilians.

"We've learned a lot," says Lynn Williams, director of property management. The network organization appointed a resident services manager to work with residents on the property, helping learn about their needs and coordinate solutions – among them: rental assistance, financial coaching classes and lessons on using smartphones. "One resident started an AA meeting, and that's been super successful. People come not just from the complex, but from the community."

Art honoring the veterans at Deer Creek Village. PHOTO/NeighborWorks Umpqua
It's a community that continues to honor veterans. The nonprofit put together welcome kits for veterans coming out of homelessness, containing things like sheets, towels, dishes, pots and pans and hygiene items, says CEO Erica Mills, who delivered some of the kits. She recalls delivering one of them to a veteran who was receiving help from a church group setting up his new apartment. "He was speechless and moved to tears with emotion over the unexpected gift." 

This year, NeighborWorks Umpqua has planned a Veterans Day event with food, games and more, and the property manager is also honoring veterans in the neighborhood. How? Asking her children's school to create artwork for them and thanking them for their service.

Residents feel the support. Kenneth, a tenant who served as a sergeant before departing the military in February, spent some time living in his car after he left the Army. "Living on the streets was rough," he says. But he started working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the local office helped him find a spot at Deer Creek. "Since being housed, I now get to relax and enjoy time. I now have somewhere safe and comfortable to call home for me and my daughter."

Gary, a retired Army corporal, served in the 1970s. He got into trouble, he says, and spent some years in temporary housing. "Then I started with the local Roseburg VA, and they were able to pull together resources and find permanent housing at Deer Creek where I was the first veteran tenant to move in." He's been there a year and a half. "I am thankful for Deer Creek. I am comfortable and housed and plan on staying here for a very long time." 


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