What is Fern Hill?
Fern Hill Apartments is a three-story apartment complex located at 214 North Prospect St. in Burlington that provides housing for low-income adults who are either “elderly” (aged 62 and over) or disabled (aged 18 and over). Fern Hill Apartments is owned by the Synagogue Corporation, an independent nonprofit originally established by Ohavi Zedek
The genesis of providing this low-income housing came from the late Rabbi Max Wall and OZ members. In 1972, Rabbi Wall stated, “We want to provide high quality housing where people can live in dignity.”
In 1978, the Synagogue Corporation d/b/a Fern Hill Apartments was incorporated as a Vermont non-profit. In July 1979, the Internal Revenue Service recognized the Synagogue Corporation as a 501(c) (3) tax-exempt corporation. Later that year, the Synagogue Corporation received approval from HUD (the federal Dept. of Housing and
Urban Development) for a 40-year mortgage under the Section 202 program providing funds to construct elderly and disabled housing for low-income tenants.
Synagogue Corporation Board directors are OZ members or a family member or partner of an OZ member. The OZ Board approves the Synagogue Corporation Directors at the beginning of such Director’s term. The Synagogue Corporation reports annually to the OZ Board.
How it all began
In 1950, OZ bought the site of the Burgess estate, upon which Fern Hill now sits. OZ sold the property two years later to Phi Sigma Delta, a fraternity of the University of Vermont. The fraternity’s building was vandalized in 1969, and its members lacked the means to rehabilitate it; for the next two years it stood empty.
In 1971, OZ bought the property back from Phi Sigma Delta. Rabbi Wall and congregants talked about renovating and transforming the existing building into senior housing. Barely a year later, in 1972, the building was destroyed by fire, but the idea of providing affordable housing remained.
How did they do it?
The original Synagogue Corporation board consisted of eleven Ohavi Zedek congregants and Rabbi Wall including Lawrence M. Bagdan, chair, Esther Cohen, Harvey Corman, Barry Flur, James Gould, Fred Hirsch, Mark Kaplan, Matthew Katz, Arnold Krieger, Richard Segal, Jennie Stoler, and Bernard Weisburgh.
The original board did the time-consuming work of developing a plan and working with HUD to secure a Section 202 mortgage. OZ supplied $10,000 in collateral, which was raised through $100 donations from congregants (and paid back in full at the end of two years).
The Synagogue Corporation bought the land upon which Fern Hill now stands from OZ for its market value of $129,000, and was accepted by HUD as a sponsor of low-income housing and granted a 40-year mortgage. HUD granted a loan of $2,012,700. Construction costs were $1,736,548.
Fern Hill Apartments opened for occupancy on Friday, May 23, 1980.
Who can live at Fern Hill?
Fern Hill is a senior housing community comprised of 60 one bedroom apartments subsidized through the project based Section 8 program as well as one two-bedroom apartment for a staff member. Residents are required to meet specific eligibility requirements including income. Elderly is defined as age 62 and above. In general, residents may have adjusted incomes no more than 80% of the median income for Chittenden County. In addition, 40% of new occupancies in a calendar year are reserved for residents with adjusted incomes at or below 30% of the median income for Chittenden County.
The above rules apply to the applicant’s status at initial move-in. The allowable monthly rent is set by HUD annually based on area market rents. The resident’s monthly share of the rent is based upon on his/her annual income certification and cannot exceed 30% of the resident’s monthly income. HUD subsidizes the balance of the unit rent.
What is it like to live there?
Fern Hill is not just an apartment complex; it’s a community, with activities, social services, on-site staff, and a commitment to supporting a healthy, opportunity-rich life for residents regardless of age.
Each one bedroom can have a maximum of two occupants. Residents provide their own furniture; the kitchens come with stoves and refrigerators. The building is handicapped accessible throughout and has six specially designed accessible units on the first floor.
On the first-floor, community spaces include three large community rooms—one with oversized TV that can be used as an exercise space, a second with a fireplace and a third with a kitchen. In addition, there is a small conference or meeting room and an office dedicated to SASH (Seniors Aging Successfully at Home—a program provided by
Cathedral Square) and other social services.
There are now two elevators, two renovated bathrooms on the first floor, and an enlarged laundry room. The second and third floors each have renovated community rooms. One is designed to be used by a hairdresser and for a toenail clinic.
Residents have access to outdoor garden plots and an outdoor patio surrounded by plantings. All utilities except phone, Internet, and cable television service are included in the monthly rent.
SASH staff organizes programs like flu clinics, holiday sing-alongs, a weekly blood pressure clinic and guest speakers on health issues from a variety of social service agencies. Fern Hill management organizes community events such as picnics, monthly meetings with residents, and other celebrations.
Who owns Fern Hill?
The Synagogue Corporation owns Fern Hill. The Synagogue Corporation’s volunteer board of directors sets policy and oversees management.
When Fern Hill opened its doors in 1980, the board hired an executive director to manage the building’s affairs (from 1985 on, with the help of an assistant director). In February 2017, the executive director resigned, and the board entered into a contract with Maloney Properties, a local company experienced in managing non-profit housing.
Complications and resolution
In 2014, in the mistaken belief that Fern Hill would revert to the synagogue after forty years, the OZ board had the Fern Hill property appraised. The appraiser searched the land records and brought to light the modification of the original deed that struck the reversionary clause in 1979. While this surprised many people, Fern Hill’s legal status
was now clear to all, and therefore it fell to the Synagogue Corporation board to look into options for the property’s next steps.
Refinancing and renovation!
The Synagogue Corporation explored the possibilities for Fern Hill as the end of the Section 202 mortgage approached. Throughout the process, the board has retained the services of Amy Wright, a development consultant versed in affordable housing.
The first phase included a grant from VHCB (the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board) that allowed the Synagogue Corporation board to consider the possibilities for keeping Fern Hill affordable while meeting the needs of an aging population.
The board decided to seek financing to: (1) pay off a recent roof repair, (2) pay off the original HUD mortgage from 1979, and (3) upgrade and renovate the building. Financing was sought through the Affordable Housing Program administered through the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston (FLHBB) with the support of People’s United Bank (PUB). Once the application was approved, financing was through a 15-year loan of $2,560,000 through PUB and a $500,000 grant through FHLBB.
Part of the plans included the $20,000 purchase in 2018 of three-tenths of an acre from OZ to adjust a boundary and meet zoning requirements.
The board hired Jeanne A. Morrissey Construction (“JAM”) to carry out a roughly $2,000,000 renovation. Construction began in August 2018 and included upgrades to apartments, hallways, community spaces, and outdoor work. Construction was completed in the spring of 2019.
The board also dealt with the Section 8 Housing Assistance Payments (HAP) contract that had been slated to end in 2020 by negotiations with HUD allowing a change to a different Section 8 designation and a HAP contract extending another 20 years through 2040.
The Synagogue Corporation looks forward to increasing activities in conjunction with OZ. Fern Hill residents and OZ (including preschoolers) will be sharing the garden space.
The challenge for the Synagogue Corporation is to continue planning for the future needs of Fern Hill—both the residents and the home provided for them. We will continue to plan for services and programming. We will finalize our 20 year Capital Needs Assessment.
Synagogue Corporation Board
Rabbi Amy Small