98 Essex Street fills housing needs

GERRY MILES/Staff photoHaverhill Mayor James Fiorentini addresses a crowd of dignitaries for the grand opening of the affordable housing apartment building at 98 Essex St., while a picture of the building before its overhaul is shown on a monitor behind him.

HAVERHILL — A historic part of the city that had fallen into disrepair emerged Wednesday as a re-purposed affordable housing cog in the historic district.

The former Shoe and Leather Associates at 98 Essex St., also known as the Chen building, had its grand opening as a new multifaceted structure — boasting affordable and workforce apartments connected to a parking garage.

Now called 98 Essex, the eight-story building includes a community lounge, children’s playroom, fitness center, laundry room, on-site management and 24-hour emergency maintenance. Heat, hot water and air conditioning are included in the rent.

Offered for rent are a mix of 15 one-bedroom, 41 two-bedroom, and six three-bedroom apartments. Ten percent of units are restricted to those earning 30% or less of the area’s median income or AMI. These apartments are available to homeless families through a partnership with New Lease for Homeless Families, an organization that connects property owners with families in need.

Other units are available to those earning 50%, 60% or 80% of the AMI.

“It’s the No. 1 issue that I hear about every day,” Mayor James Fiorentini said. “I get contacted every day about the need for affordable housing in the city. It’s a great start for us here in Haverhill and I’m proud to support it.”

Once owned by Sean and Angela Chen, the building fell into disrepair when the housing market bottomed out in 2007, Fiorentini said.

At a Halloween event on Wednesday, Fiorentini was approached by a woman who said that she is saving $500 monthly in rent and living a better life in the brand new building at 98 Essex.

State Rep. Andy Vargas lauded the new building as a vital addition to the area.

Citing housing as the top constituent concern, Vargas said 98 Essex is a shining example to showcase to the Legislature.

“When I meet with both chambers in the Legislature, I can say ‘Look what we can do when we have programs like this that are available,’” Vargas said. “This is exactly the type of housing we want, particularly on the affordable side. The project does a great job to alleviate some pressures here in Haverhill, it’s a great start. Team work makes the dream work.”

State Rep. Christina Minicucci — whose district includes Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen and North Andover — underscored Vargas’s concern about the calls for affordable housing.

“I actually went online in my district to look for apartments to rent, and there is not one to rent,” Minicucci said. “I know it’s not easy and a project like this takes a lot of perseverance. It does take a team and it really is a great product.”

Michael Mattos of the Affordable Housing and Services Collaborative acknowledged the long journey, noting Wednesday’s celebration came almost five years after signing the purchase and sale agreement for the building.

Financing for the project included a combination of tax credits, state and federal grants, and private construction financing from Eastern Bank.

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