AP NEWS

Slow Climb for Housing in Twin Cities

April 7, 2019

Although housing market for the state’s Gateway Cities hasn’t returned to pre-recession levels, leaders of the Twin Cities say they have seen improvement and are working on ways to meet the demand for housing in the region.

“The recovery has been slow, but the trajectory is in the right direction,” said Liz Murphy, Fitchburg’s housing director.

A January report by nonpartisan think tank MassINC and the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations found that the vacancy rate in Fitchburg increased from 7 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2017. In Leominster, the rate went from 3 percent to 6 percent in the same period.

Despite that, mayors from the Twin Cities say people are looking for higher end housing and affordable options. When housing is available, it doesn’t stay vacant for long.

“The problem has been there’s not enough of it,” said Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella.

Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale said more of any type of housing would be helpful, including single-family homes that could be good for new homeowners.

“We want to encourage people to live, work, and play in Fitchburg because of its affordability,” he said.

Tom Skwierawski, executive director of the city’s Community Development Department, said rising housing prices in the Boston and Worcester markets have driven people to Fitchburg.

Between 2006 and 2018, home values in Fitchburg have decreased 15 percent and 11 percent in Leominster, according to the report.

Instead of decline, city officials see growth.

In Fitchburg, Single-family homes had an average sale of $208,000, which is a 12 percent increase from 2017, DiNatale said in his February State of the City address. There was also a listing price increase of 18 percent.

To help people who want to live in Fitchburg, the city has a pilot down payment assistance program that is income-based, Murphy said.

So far, it has helped with one home purchase and two are in the works. The goal is to help about five home purchases, she said.

Housing development in both cities has also helped meet some of the demand.

In Leominster, former factory and mill buildings have been transformed into apartments and other redevelopment projects are in the works, Mazzarella said. He sees opportunity to create housing by the Mall at Whitney Field because it’s close to the highway and amenities.

The former Carter Junior High School will be converted into 39 units by NewVue Communities, a development and neighborhood stabilization organization based in Fitchburg.

“There’s a wealth of already built housing in the Gateway Cities ... taking advantage of that is good for the state, each of the cities, and residents,” said NewVue Executive Director Marc Dohan.

For Fitchburg, Murphy said attention has shifted to addressing deficient housing and getting those properties on the market.

NewVue has also built housing on vacant lots and rehabilitated properties in Fitchbug. It has paid attention to areas like the North of Main neighborhood where about 10 homes and rentals have been completed on High Street, Dohan said.

One case study the report points to is the organization’s Liabilities to Assets program that serves Fitchburg, Leominster, Gardner, Clinton, and Athol.

Through the pilot program with the state Department of Housing and Community Development, NewVue will rehabilitate one- and two-family houses that have been vacant for at least three years.

Fixing up homes within designated neighborhoods can have an impact on the neighborhood as a whole, Dohan said.

In Fitchburg, the pilot is focusing on the North of Main and lower South Street areas and houses along Mechanic Street in Leominster. Specific properties haven’t been identified yet, he said.

Through the program, NewVue expects to redevelop about 30 properties in the next three to five years, Dohan said.

Fitchburg officails said the city is hopeful about the pilot and hope the state continues and potentially expands it.

“It’s really a drop in the bucked with what our needs are,” Skwierawski said.

Although there have been housing projects in the Twin Cities, there have been challenges to rehabilitate or develop more.

Mazzarella said Leominster’s challenges boil down to money. Rents aren’t cheap and there is a high cost to build anything, he said. Also, there isn’t much incentive for people to invest money in properties other than to have them up to code.

Fitchburg’s challenge has been the quality of its housing stock, Murphy said.

The report give a blueprint to stabilize neighborhoods, which include code enforcement and inspections for rental housing and for local governments to help acquire, maintain and dispose municipally-owned property.

The report also helped spur legislation supported by the Gateway Cities Caucus that seeks to increase home ownership and fill vacant housing in Gateway Cities.

Known as the Neighborhood Stabilization Initiative, the bill would incentivize housing development and establish a commission to study how to improve housing in weak markets.

Sen. Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat, and Rep. Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat, proposed the bills.

Between the two bills, co-sponsors from the North Central delegation include Reps. Stephan Hay, D-Fitchburg, and Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, and Sen. Dean Tran, R-Fitchburg.

Follow Mina on Twitter @mlcorpuz