A new influx of federal money is helping towns like Vernon turn old mills into housing, part of a long-term plan to alleviate the state’s housing crisis and clean up blight in downtowns, officials said Thursday.
President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes about $1.5 billion for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Program. Of that amount, about $8.8 million was awarded in fiscal year 2023 to Connecticut municipalities for brownfield remediation. Many developers are pairing this with money the state legislature has allocated for that same purpose.
Brownfields are abandoned, polluted properties such as former gas stations or dry cleaners. In Connecticut, they’re often old mills — the vestiges of an industry that no longer exists in many towns in the state. The properties are tough to reuse because of the pollution, and getting rid of contaminants until they’re clean enough for residential uses takes time.
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., and town officials visited two of these sites in Vernon on Thursday. One has been turned into 64 units of housing, some of which are designated affordable, and another is being cleaned up by a developer.
“That’s the thing about brownfields is that it’s an existing site,” Courtney said. “Towns really have to do something with it. Otherwise, you’ve got a risk of fire and public safety… and no tax revenue coming in. They’re economic losers, not winners.”
Courtney’s district has received about $9.3 million in federal dollars for brownfield programs since 2021, including $5 million to the University of Connecticut for technical support.
Vernon has at least 10 old mills still standing, many of them near the downtown area. The town is using federal and state dollars to assess and clean them up, which Courtney says is a boon to the economy. Some federal money to the area comes from the infrastructure act, and some is from other federal programs.
“There’s been a shift — a dramatic shift. I’ve been here 12 years, and we’ve been applying for EPA funding throughout that period,” said Shaun Gately, Vernon’s community and economic development director. “The EPA would help us in certain areas, but they didn’t have the funds. … And all of a sudden, there’s been an influx.”
Officials hope developing the mills into housing will bring more foot traffic to shops and restaurants downtown. Many of the structures were built in the 1800s, before people had cars, so much of the town was constructed in a way that allowed people to walk to and from their jobs at the mills.
One of the projects in earlier stages — the greater Amerbelle Mill complex — is composed of several old mills that used to print newspapers and make textiles. The complex is rundown with broken windows and fencing around it.
The plan is to turn the property into about 200 units of workforce housing. Mayor Dan Champagne said he thinks it would be a good fit for workers such as artists and teachers.
Gov. Ned Lamont pushed support for workforce housing during the most recent legislative session, saying more multi-family housing that’s affordable to people working hourly wage jobs would benefit the state’s economy.
The legislature’s bond package included $400 million for the state’s Housing Trust Fund over two years for more housing for people with low to moderate incomes and $200 million for a flexible housing program over two years.
The other Vernon site developed over the past few years is Loom City Lofts — a former sweater mill that’s now a 64-unit apartment building. Many of the units are deed-restricted to be affordable for people who earn up to 80% of the area median income.
Housing is typically considered affordable if a person spends about a third or less of their income on housing costs.
“Overall, it’s a win for the communities,” Champagne said. “Every one of these that we clean up, it’s just a win.”
Remediating brownfields is complicated, officials said Thursday. One renovated mill in Putnam has had problems with moisture in the building and toxic levels of lead paint.
“The assessment issue is so important to identify where the risk is, the contaminants,” Courtney said.
The federal government has awarded $5 million to the University of Connecticut so researchers can provide technical assistance to towns and developers who are working on projects like this, Courtney said. Researchers help clear up any confusion about process and find best practices for removing contaminants.
These projects can take time, and won’t solve many immediate housing issues, but officials said they hope that as more work is done, more projects will become available. This would establish additional streams of new housing in the coming years, Champagne said.
The state lacks about 89,000 units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest income renters.
“They’re talking mixed-use, some residential, some commercial, some public space,” Courtney said of the program. “ … But again, they’ve got real flexibility with how that’s going to be implemented. But housing is certainly one of them.”