By Steve Landwehr
HAMILTON ” A state grant announced this week is the final sweetener in the proposal to build four affordable apartments on Willow Street and provide the Acord food pantry with a permanent home.
The money, $475,000 from the Department of Housing and Community Development, will enable Harborlight Community Partners to seek bids for the project, which has already had all its permit applications approved.
Andrew DeFranza, Harborlight’s executive director, said the funding has been a long time coming.
“That’s the last big chunk of change,” DeFranza said. “We’ve been waiting for it for a year-plus.”
Besides the food pantry, the Willow Street building includes two second-floor apartments. Plans call for renovating the space to include three studio apartments on the second floor and a one-bedroom, handicapped-accessible apartment on the first floor.
The footprint of the building will be unchanged.
DeFranza’s group plans to sign a long-term lease with Acord, allowing it to stay on. Along with Hamilton, the pantry serves Wenham, Ipswich, Topsfield, Essex and Manchester.
Lori Johnson, longtime president of the food pantry’s board, was thrilled to learn the project is now officially a go.
“It’s great news, I couldn’t be happier,” she said.
Johnson said she isn’t sure if the pantry will have to relocate during construction, but that it might be possible to keep it open while work goes on around it.
DeFranza said an additional $500,000 has already been pledged to support the development, including $180,000 from the town’s Community Preservation Act funds, but it was all contingent on receiving this week’s grant.
“We’re very excited to do the project,” he said.
While the four apartments are only a tiny fraction of the 200 additional affordable-housing units the town needs to meet the state’s requirements, these projects are so rare in town officials are celebrating news of the grant.
“This is nothing the town could ever have done on its own,” said David Carey, former chairman of the Board of Selectmen who has been actively lobbying for affordable housing in town for several years.
The project also dovetails with efforts to invigorate the downtown. While the property is small, Carey said, it could be pivotal in future development of the block.