HAVERHILL — Gov. Charlie Baker was in Haverhill on Thursday to announce the city is one of the 10 latest communities in the state to be designated as a Housing Choice Community, which will open the door to new sources of state funding to support economic development.
The 10 communities join 69 Housing Choice Communities designated in 2018.
Baker made the announcement at the newly opened Ellis Factory Lofts at 24 Essex St., where he was joined by Mayor James Fiorentini, state Reps. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, Christina Minicucci, D-North Andover, Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury, and Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, along with other local and state officials.
The city recognized as a Housing Choice Community for adopting best practices for boosting housing production. The Baker administration has awarded $4 million to 19 communities through the Housing Choice Capital Grant Program since its inception two years ago, according to a press release from the governor's office.
Haverhill earned the designation by building more than 800 new homes over the last five years, successfully leveraging state resources to drive the conversion of former downtown mill buildings into mixed-use developments and promoting a variety of housing and commercial activity, according to the governor's office.
In addition to Haverhill, the newly designated communities include: Ayer, Burlington, Dracut, Fall River, Franklin, Hingham, Newton, Westwood, and Wrentham. Since 2014, these municipalities have collectively produced more than 5,800 new units of housing, according to the governor's office.
“We congratulate today’s designees for their commitment to delivering important housing for residents and look forward to building on this progress by working together with the Legislature to pass our Housing Choice legislation," Baker said.
Baker also highlighted his key legislative housing proposal, filed in February. The bill, called the Housing Choice Initiative, calls for targeted zoning reforms with a goal of spurring 135,000 new housing units by 2025.
Baker said his proposal would change a century-old state law requiring a two-thirds supermajority in communities across the state to a simple majority for certain zoning changes, in an effort to free up projects that get bogged down in the planning and approvals stages.
“This legislation will give our city options to control our own destiny," Fiorentini said. "It fits perfectly with our ongoing master plan process and will help us as we decide where we want residential growth and what kind of residential growth we want. Most importantly, it will give us new tools to develop housing that middle class families can actually afford."
Several developers at the event lamented the high cost in terms of time and money as well as the uncertainty in obtaining approvals for housing projects under current state laws. The result is that developers end up pursuing only high-end projects for high-income buyers and renters.
"This has led to a shortage of housing for young people and seniors and working families," Baker said. "We need to do something to change this and we need to do it soon."
Reps. Campbell, Minicucci, Mirra and Vargas as well as Karen Sawyer Conard, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, David Traggorth, president of Traggorth Companies, and Eric Chinburg, president of Chinburg Properties, joined the mayor in endorsing the legislation in the lead-up to the May 14 Joint Committee on Housing hearing.
Chinburg's new Lofts building, a former shoe manufacturing building, was transformed into 59 units of market rate housing, and according to Chinburg, is already full with tenants including millennials, empty nesters, and young adults who were looking for their first apartment as the building features many small studios.
"Gov. Baker’s housing choice legislation provides a much clearer path to create dense urban housing and to preserve existing structures like the Ellis Factory Lofts," Chinburg said. "It will increase housing options and density, reduce dimensional requirements, and decreases costs, which all helps to make more affordable projects."
David Traggorth, president of Traggorth Companies, also stepped up to support the governor's legislative proposal.
In 2016, Traggorth transformed the former Surplus Office Supply building at 37 Washington St. into JM Lofts, and is currently transforming the long-vacant, four-story brick building at 87 Washington St., which more than a decade ago housed Trattoria Al Forno restaurant, into a similar type of mixed-use development.
“We have been successful in Haverhill because Mayor Fiorentini has proven that housing is key to economic development, and because Gov. Baker has given us the tools like the Housing Development Incentive Tax Credit and the State Historic Tax Credit to help make it happen,” Traggorth said. "We support the housing choice legislation so that we can scale up the success we've had both within Haverhill, and in other cities and towns eager to see the same incredible results."