She’s Got You

Home is more than an idea for Sarah Carpenter

by Tom Gresham

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, stands across from her offices at the corner of St. Paul and King streets in Burlington, a short walk away from the house where she was raised and only blocks from the place she now calls home.

Home is literally never far away for Sarah Carpenter. As executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, she has a modest, comfortable office on the third floor of a St. Paul Street building in Burlington. A few blocks away are the houses on Maple and Cliff streets where she was raised. Also on Cliff Street is the house she shares with her 17-year-old son.

Carpenter says she understands the power of home its ability to provide comfort, safety and pride and cannot take that for granted. Consequently, she has spent much of her professional life working to provide others the opportunity to enjoy the satisfaction of having safe, affordable housing. For almost seven years, Carpenter's work has been with the VHFA, which aims to finance and promote decent housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income Vermonters.

Owning a home sets the tone for a family's life in many ways, says Carpenter. It produces a sense of stability, self-assurance and responsibility. Difficulties in housing can prove to be an unsettling force on all aspects of someone's life.

"This is just such an important thing for people," she says. "It can mean so much to them."

Pressures of supply and demand in Vermont have produced sometimes staggeringly high housing prices and a lean market of affordable units. From left are Pat Crady, director of home-ownership programs; Pat Loller, director of administration; Sam Falzone, director of multifamily programs; David Adams, chief of program operations; and Gary Marini, chief financial officer.

Formed by the Legislature in 1974, the VHFA has provided homeownership assistance to over 24,000 Vermont households and financed the construction and rehabilitation of more than 6,700 affordable rental units.

VHFA's programs include below-market interest rates to borrowers through participating lenders, support of the local home-ownership center branches that help guide potential home buyers through the process of purchasing a home, and construction loans for developers building affordable rental housing. The organization's loan program is funded largely with the issuance of bonds. VHFA receives no direct state funding.

According to Carpenter, VHFA projects often include a host of partners and financial sources coming together to forge complex deals. She spends large chunks of her time with her eyes on documents and computer screens, running through the serpentine world of financing. Still, she says, she remains emotionally connected to the way VHFA's work plays out in practice. She sees people receiving the help they need to purchase their first house or the multi-family project that will supply affordable housing to dozens of families.

"It's no less rewarding than it was the day I started," Carpenter says.

Carpenter has brought energy and increased visibility to the VHFA, according to Mary Ellen Spencer, a friend and colleague. Spencer serves on the board of the Converse Home, a senior assisted-living home in Burlington that VHFA helped finance. She says Converse Home represents an example of VHFA's willingness under Carpenter to extend its reach into a diverse mixture of housing options.

"She really has grown that agency significantly," Spencer says. "She has made a big difference. She works very hard, a lot of times behind the scenes, to make sure that things always fall into place. She's done an amazing job."

Carpenter's tenure with the VHFA has coincided with a housing crisis across Vermont that has been particularly acute in Chittenden County. The pressures of supply and demand have produced sometimes staggeringly high housing prices and a lean market of affordable units.

VHFA has played a critical role in improving the housing climate and cutting into the large deficit of available homes, but, against the grand scale of the housing crunch, the organization's work and really, all progress can sometimes seem comparably scant.

Carpenter acknowledges the scope of the problem, but says surrendering under the weight of the issue and conceding the challenge as insurmountable will not lead to any improvements.

"We've just got to pick away at it," Carpenter says. "It's not going to be an easy job. It's definitely a job for an optimist. It's about one house at a time. I know it's an overwhelming task, but you can't let it overwhelm you.

"It's like solving the health care crisis. You can't stop working on it, because you know it's too important to quit on. You know you have to keep moving on it and get it done. Except this is really easier than health care because we know what we need to do: we need to build more housing."

Computers are important for navigating the serpentine world of financing. Chris MacAskill (left) is systems specialist/administrator, and Rick Jean is information systems manager.
VHFA's programs include help for multifamily projects to supply affordable housing.

Carpenter says she has been encouraged by the increasing public awareness of the housing shortage, and the work that community groups and municipalities have done to bring more affordable housing to their towns. She says VHFA is committed to providing resources to communities and groups around the state who are looking for information about the housing environment in Vermont and how it can be improved.

Although the majority of residents now realize the state's stiff housing market constitutes a problem, they remain divided on what should be done to improve the situation, says Carpenter. She believes ultimately a common ground will be necessary before major progress is made.

"I'd like to see a more unified conversation,." she says. "There needs to be a conversation about regional solutions. Unfortunately, we don't have a good place in this state for regional decision-making."

Carpenter's belief in the importance of housing was born better than 30 years ago when her social and career focus was trained on senior issues. Carpenter was the social services director at the Champlain Valley Agency on Aging for a stretch in the 1970s. In that post, she occasionally collaborated with VHFA on senior housing projects. Through some successful programs that grew out of the partnership, Carpenter discovered that safe, affordable housing could be the answer to a host of questions.

"I saw what a major difference quality housing could have for people," she says. "You can solve a lot of problems if you can first solve that big problem."

Carpenter ultimately elected to pursue expanding housing opportunities as a career choice because she saw it as possessing sizable potential as a public cure. She worked with the zeal of the converted, believing wholly in the influence safe, affordable housing could have on other social issues.

Eliza Smith-Vedder (left) is multifamily development underwriter, and Erin Philbrick is multifamily operations specialist.

From 1983 to 1998, Carpenter worked as the executive director of the Cathedral Square Corp. in Burlington, helping to build the nonprofit into a standard in its wedding of affordable housing and community services. The work primed her well for her position at the VHFA.

Spencer says Carpenter is blessed with attributes that make her a strong leader. Spencer hired her about 30 years ago at the Agency on Aging, and the qualities that made Carpenter an attractive job candidate then remain in evidence today.

"She's got a lot of enthusiasm," says Spencer. "She's very bright. She sees the big picture. She's got very good people skills and knows how to deal with conflict and bring it to a successful resolution. She's not set in her ways and is always looking for new ways to accomplish her goals. She just does so many things well."

Because Carpenter's home and work are centered in downtown Burlington near her childhood home, it is no surprise to learn she loves the Queen City. She attended both Burlington High School and the University of Vermont, where she graduated cum laude in social work.

Her only significant stint away from Burlington came when she attended graduate school at Harvard University to study for a master of public administration. She enjoyed Boston, but felt drawn to return in 1983 to Burlington, where the bulk of her family lived.

She swiftly found a place to live in the midst of another tight housing market, but had the kind of help many of those seeking homes do not: a wide network of friends and families with their eyes peeled and a father who worked in real estate.

"I had some things going for me that others do not," Carpenter says. "I had a lot of people to help me along the way. Others are more vulnerable."

Carpenter is not an athlete nor does she have a particular hobby. Friends and family, particularly her son, Torrey Barrows, are her chief interests; but Burlington, she suggests, qualifies as an activity itself. "I take part in everything that's gone on in Burlington all the events. There's always something to do, always something going on, and it's such an interesting place."

However, Carpenter has hardly wrapped herself in a Burlington cocoon. She spends a great deal of time traveling the state in her VHFA duties, keeping tabs on the organization's diverse projects and interests, and researching the communities around the state she's charged to serve. She was recently elected to the board of trustees at Fletcher Allen Health Care and sits on the national board of the Council of State Housing Agencies.

Carpenter also travels frequently for pleasure, whether it's a short trip to her camp on Lake Carmi or into Quebec, or to somewhere more distant, notably a recent trip to Ireland.

No matter the journey, of course, Carpenter always ends up returning home.

"It's a great thing to have," she says, "and it's so important."

Originally published in May 2005 Business People-Vermont