Hamilton Mulls Affordable-Housing Options, The Hamilton-Wenham Chronicle, May 28, 2009

By Steve Landwehr

HAMILTON ” In many communities, building 20 new affordable apartments would barely draw comment. But of all the housing in Hamilton, just over 3 percent is affordable, and projects that would increase that number don’t come along often.

So a proposal for a score of new units is rousing interest, and it all began with one woman’s plea to her fellow church members.

Hamilton’s Acord food pantry has been serving that town, Wenham, Ipswich, Topsfield, Essex and Manchester for about 20 years. It has operated out of the old Hamilton fire station on Willow Street, a property owned by the late Phil Hansbury.

When Lori Johnson, longtime president of the pantry’s board, learned that Hansbury’s estate wanted to sell the building, she panicked. Finding affordable space for a nonprofit in an affluent community can be daunting, and Johnson finally called for help from fellow parishioners at First Church in Wenham.

“None of the options we looked at were perfect,” Johnson said. “The best alternative was to stay where we are.”

The pantry serves about 200 people a week, Johnson said, and those numbers have been climbing as the economy has been falling.

Johnson eventually hooked up with Andrew DeFranza, executive director of Harborlight Community Partners. The Beverly nonprofit is looking to position itself as a resource for local communities who are seeking affordable-housing partners, DeFranza said.

Besides the food pantry, the Willow Street building includes two second-floor apartments, both currently vacant.

Under the terms of a deal taking shape, DeFranza’s group would buy the building and sign a long-term lease with Acord, allowing it to stay on.

Additionally, the space would be renovated to include three studio apartments on the second floor and a one-bedroom, handicapped-accessible apartment on the first floor. All of the apartments would be affordable for those making between 50 percent and 65 percent of the median household income, $82,000, in metro Boston.

The alterations would not increase the building’s footprint, DeFranza said.

If DeFranza obtains some additional operating subsidies, the units would be reduced in cost to be affordable by people making 30 percent of the median income.

Although Johnson’s focus is the long-term survival of the pantry, she says combining it with affordable apartments at a site convenient to shopping and public transportation makes a lot of sense.

The pantry would wind up with about half the space it currently has, but Johnson thinks it would be adequate.

“You use what you’re given,” she said, “but I’m convinced we can do with a lot less space.”

Library check out

Town officials impressed with DeFranza’s proposal asked him to look at possible reuse of another older building, the former Hamilton library on Bay Road.

The first floor is currently home to the Senior Center, and DeFranza has begun talking to town boards about making that arrangement permanent, while converting the second story to 10 affordable apartments for seniors.

Under one possible scenario, a third floor and 10 additional affordable apartments might be added.

“It’s a great spot from a residential point of view,” DeFranza said. “We want to be available if the town wants a mixed-use development.”

The town owns the library, and while there have been no discussions about legal arrangements, some other towns have contributed to similar projects by signing 100-year leases with developers, for $1.

While 20 new affordable units would leave the town well short of the additional 182 low ”and moderate-income housing units, it needs to permanently forestall 40B developments, they would buy a temporary reprieve. Such developments can skirt local zoning regulations if they create affordable housing, often resulting in projects that are much larger than a community wants.

If the town approves building 14 or more affordable units at one time and has a state-approved plan to produce more, new 40B developments can be denied for up to 12 months.

Besides helping meet the town’s stated goal of creating more affordable housing, age-restricted developments such as the one proposed at the library solve another need in towns with limited commercial tax bases: additional sources of revenue with little need for additional services.

The typical family that moves into town with children requires more town services than it pays for with taxes.

This project is barely beyond the pipe-dream stage, but newly elected Selectman Jennifer Scuteri said during her campaign that appropriate reuse of the library is one of her goals. She said though she hasn’t spoken with the Council on Aging, she believes its members would be thrilled to have a permanent home.

Apartment dwellers on the upper floor could look across the street on another architectural treasure, the Community House, Scuteri said, and together the two buildings make for a pleasing downtown.

DeFranza agreed.

If I was a senior,” he said, “I’d like to live there.”

Staff writer Steve Landwehr can be reached at 978-338-2660 or by e-mail at slandwehr@salemnews.com.

http://www.salemnews.com/local/x1690077842/Hamilton-mulls-affordable-housing-options