Project at former church altered

Carl Russo / Staff photoThe former St. George's Church on Washington Street in Haverhill is shown in this file photo from 2004. 

HAVERHILL — A local organization that plans to replace the former St. George's Church property in the Mount Washington neighborhood with low-income housing has revised its plans and will create fewer units than originally proposed.

The project is moving forward, with demolition of the church expected to begin soon. 

Bread & Roses Housing, a nonprofit based in Lawrence, received a special permit last year to proceed with the project, gaining unanimous approval from the City Council.

A representative from Bread & Roses Housing addressed the council at its Sept. 24 meeting asking to modify the special permit to reduce the number of units from 10 to seven. A public hearing on the request did not elicit any comments for or against.

Yesenia Gil, executive director of Bread & Roses Housing, said due to funding, logistical concerns, management and other considerations, the revised plan is to build three duplexes and one single-family home, rather than two larger buildings, one with six and another with four units.

She said the changes would reduce costs from nearly $3 million to about $1.5 million, make the properties easier to build and manage, reduce density and boost quality of life for the homeowners, and increase open space along the site. The proposed units would still feature off-street parking and individual fenced-in yard space, she said.

The project earned enthusiastic support from city councilors, the mayor, the planning director and community groups including the Mount Washington Alliance and Urban Kindness for its two-birds-with-one-stone approach in both removing the abandoned church, which has become a neighborhood blight, and bringing home ownership to the area, which has struggled with absent landlords and crime in recent years.

Councilor Thomas Sullivan told Gil that he likes the new plan better than the original one.

"I think more open space or more space around the units is definitely better than what I saw a year ago," he said. "I supported you a year ago because this housing is vital to the neighborhood and the city. I'm all for this."

In response to Sullivan's questions about the project's timeline, Gil said her organization is currently removing asbestos from the building and that demolition of the former church is expected to take place by late fall.

She said the initial foundations for the home are expected to be poured following demolition, with construction of the first two duplexes taking place over the winter, followed by construction of a third duplex in the spring and the single family home. 

"I hope it sets a standard and serves as a catalyst for additional housing opportunities for the residents of Mount Washington," Councilor Joseph Bevilacqua said.

Council President John Michitson thanked Gil for her organization's investment in the Mount Washington neighborhood.

"It's a good project and I think you made it better," he said prior to the council unanimously approving Gil's request to modify the special permit.

The church on Washington Street was abandoned in 1998 when four Catholic churches in the city consolidated. Mayor James Fiorentini said he originally hoped to see St. George's — the church his own grandparents attended — preserved, but "after years of it sitting there inactive ... I became all for this project."

The nonprofit aims to get low-income families into homeownership by providing newly renovated or newly built homes to very low-income, first-time homebuyers at a reduced rate. The goal is to offer those families with the benefits that come with being a homeowner and to help them become financially stable.

Bread & Roses maintains ownership of the land through a community land trust, so that more low-income families can take over the home if the residents decide to move. It's also stipulated that the houses must remain owner-occupied and cannot be rented.

Gil said Bread & Roses targets residents who earn 30 to 60 percent of the median household income in the area, and that 60 percent of the homebuyers in the program are single female heads of household. 

"We do serve those who are most in need," Gil said. "A family of four earning $28,500 a year to $51,050 a year can afford our homes."

Gil said the new homeowners are expected to move in next summer.

"We've recently collaborated with Budget Buddies and Community Action in Haverhill to deliver financial literacy programming to low-income women in the Haverhill area in preparation for our homeownership units," she said.

"We've developed units in North Andover and Lawrence, and we're now expanding into Haverhill," she said.

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