Homes are where her heart is
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
As chief executive officer of Champlain Housing Trust, a corporation with a $6.8 million operating budget that owns over $250 million in assets, Brenda Torpy wields a lot of power with deftness and clarity of mission.
The first jaw-dropping piece of information that comes to light about Champlain Housing Trust — the first of many, by the way, probably because its work is so little understood by the general public — is that, although it is a tax-exempt corporation, CHT pays property taxes to the municipalities it serves in Chittenden, Franklin, and Grand Isle counties, totaling over $1.2 million a year in Burlington alone.
The organization — which is the result of a 2006 merger of the Burlington Community Land Trust and Lake Champlain Housing Development Corp — has more than $250 million in assets in either owned property or through partnerships. It’s a fine example of that old saw about “doing well by doing good.” In this case, though, the resources amassed from “doing well” are plowed right back into “doing good.” Along the way, a lot of jobs are created and a lot of safe, affordable housing is provided.
Torpy is not a native Vermonter, but her heart has long been here. When she was growing up on the South Shore of Montreal, she says, the border meant a lot less than it does today, and she enjoyed her familiy’s trips to the state.
After French grade school and English high school, she earned her bachelor of arts in history at Concordia University and headed to Toronto, where she earned her master’s in social history from York University.
Her first summer out of graduate school, Torpy found work as a nurse’s aide at the McFarland House in Barre. She also did some community organizing work, including advocating for the generic drug bill, which passed in 1978.
“I started to learn about advocacy,” says Torpy. “We did some around the housing need in Barre.” Eventually, she went to work for the Community Action Agency in St. Albans, helping people who were losing housing.
“There were no rental laws and protection,” she says, “so it was just helping people to get housing and stay housed.” She laughs as she adds, “I learned I’m not really good in direct service.”
She took an internship at a spin-off of a nonprofit housing organization. “One of the first projects was to bring water and sewer into Swanton, and rehab to these homes so they could get upgraded housing and other improvements.
“In a small town, you get to do everything!” she exclaims. “I wrote the grant, all the infrastructure needs — I got the bug right then and there.”
Her French training came in handy, “because some of those people — especially those who were my grandmother’s age — had not learned English. I could have had many cups of tea visiting there,” she says, laughing.
The internship led to a job, and she stayed on until 1982. “I was newly single and thinking of where in the world to go to do this kind of work, and started to hear about what was happening in Burlington. There was a renewal of citizen engagement and community development work with our new mayor, Bernie Sanders.
“I just upped and moved here and applied to work at City Hall. I was fortunate to get the housing job at the Community and Economic Development Office.”
Exciting prospects were in the breeze, such as developing the waterfront with loads of public space and input and working to improve the Old North End, which had an aged housing stock. “The challenge,” she says, “was, How do we improve that without making it unaffordable?”
Torpy was instructed to work with neighborhood leaders and housing groups such as tenant associations. “There was no comprehensive landlord-tenant law,” she says, “so with others in the state, we advocated for that, to protect tenants and balance those things out.”
As federal resources for housing that had been developed with subsidy and affordability 15 years earlier were being withdrawn and people were being displaced, a need was seen for a way to incorporate permanent affordability.
Burlington was looking at Northgate Apartments and the possibility of developing more affordable, sustainable housing, which could have been lost assuming no new federal resources. “We created the Burlington Community Land Trust,” says Torpy, who served as its first board president.
The community land trust model came out of the civil rights movement in the South, she explains. “How do you consider a neighborhood and improve it? Get people to take part in the improvement. It was a model that created a lot of promise.
“We got the OK for the city to go study this with the Institute for Community Economics, and we came back and said to the mayor, ‘This is what we should do. We can put more leadership in the hands of citizens,’ and it provided more permanent affordability. After Burlington created the trust fund, the state created the Housing and Conservation Trust Fund. That’s been the city’s and the state’s policy for 25 years.”
Torpy was having fun, “working with local citizens to develop plans for the trust — people who came forward, like Sarah Carpenter, who’s with VHFA [Vermont Housing Finance Agency] now, and people who wanted their kids to be able to buy a house here.”
In 1987, Torpy left the city for a brief stint as development director with VHFA, but found she missed being locally engaged. She jumped at the opportunity to coordinate the $21 million tenant-led buyout of Northgate’s 336 apartments, including the creation of a nonprofit, tenant-led board.
Jeanne Morrissey, the owner of J.A. Morrissey Inc., was with her family’s company, Wright & Morrissey, when she worked on the Northgate project, but she had met Torpy earlier. “I was an engineer and she was a community activist — very different roles, but a shared vision of humanity,” she says. “I’m a fan for life. And by the way, my company is involved in a very large-scale revisiting of Northgate as we speak.”
In 1991, as the Northgate project came to an end, the founding director of the Burlington Community Land Trust was leaving. “I thought that was the best thing we ever did,” says Torpy. I applied for the job, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Morrissey agrees. “Vermont has been cutting edge in affordable housing, and Brenda has been instrumental in leading the development of these ideas, but Northgate by itself has to be the most successful ongoing story.”
The Community Land Trust was focused on expanding homeownership opportunities, says Torpy, but also developing new housing. When another federal initiative — this time aimed at regional plans — appeared, the city had formed, with four surrounding communities, the Lake Champlain Housing Development Corp. Both had started up in 1984.
Throughout the 1990s, the two organizations worked cooperatively in several areas, building strong relationships and occasionally sharing board members. “We were starting to look more and more alike,” says Torpy. “By the 2000s, funding was again shrinking. John Davis, their board president, came to us after a turnover of directors. He said, ‘We’re not sure we want to merge, but we want to talk about it again.’”
In 2005, with staff leadership and three board members each, the two organizations met and outlined their goals and missions. “We realized the only way to achieve that together was to fully merge.”
The merger closed Oct. 1, 2006, Torpy says, “but I would say it really ended when we moved into this new building on King Street on inauguration day in January 2009. It took a while to develop an office where we could bring together the core corporate functions.”
Both organizations were at about 40 employees, and although there was some overlap, and residual stress, the merger went well. Today, around 70 employees keep things humming. That includes large maintenance and property management staffs to keep things in shape.
Once the dust settled, the newly formed Champlain Housing Trust created a new strategic plan. A program called Ready Set Rent was established to help people who might be turned away because of bad credit. CHT provided a module on finances for Champlain College students. And today, work is progressing with state agencies to help get families out of shelter and temporary housing and right into apartments.
Michael Monte, formerly director of Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office, was hired as chief operations and financial officer in 2007. “There’s probably nobody in the state who knows as much as he does,” says Torpy.
“We have continued to produce new housing and have over 2,000 homes now in our portfolio,” says Torpy. “We have 1,500 apartments, 500 homes in our shared equity homeownership program, and we have served over 800 families because of resale.” Programs in the home ownership counseling center served 1,500 people last year.
Torpy’s enthusiasm is contagious. “We were the first municipally supported community land trust in the country,” she says. “We’re still the largest, and in the ’90s, when land got really expensive on both coasts, local and county government leaders came to visit us all the time to see how we did it. And now there are 230 community land trusts in the country.”
She speaks with pride of the list of awards the organization has received. High on the list is the United Nations World Habitat Award given to CHT’s shared-equity homeownership program.
Torpy became a citizen in 1982, and in 1993, she married Ken Messing, an investigator for the Public Defender’s Office, whom she met through a mutual friend. They live in South Hero and spend their time together outdoors or on the shore. A self-confessed “Sunday painter,” Torpy enjoys creating watercolor paintings when she can find time.
She is vice president of the board of the National Community Land Trust Network, which will bring its annual conference to Burlington in September. At the conference, she says, each group will make a presentation. “Australia is really moving forward; there’s a startup group in Sidney. They’re also working with people on the Aboriginal lands.
“So our model has spread,” she continues. “Vermont’s like that: A little state with big ideas.” •