SALISBURY – Amanda Burlingame stood beside a tall, wide stack of washers and dryers in the virtually completed Residences at Salisbury Square affordable housing complex on Wednesday.
After throwing armfuls of clothes into one of the washers, she grabbed her laundry basket and headed back to her apartment. Two weeks ago, she and her 3-year-old son were homeless.
Burlingame and other families recently began moving into the two buildings that make up Residences at Salisbury Square – the most ambitious affordable housing project ever completed by YWCA Greater Newburyport.
"I love it, it's amazing," Burlingame said. "All the apartments are beautiful and the location, everything you need is right there."
Burlingame considered herself lucky after applying for one of the 42 available units in two buildings – 26 apartments at the old Spalding School on Park Street and 16 more in a separate building on Elm Street.
In January, the YWCA held a lottery at the Hilton Senior Center and more than 150 people showed up looking to fill the one- two- and three-bedroom apartments. That number paled in comparison to the roughly 450 people who applied for an apartment.
"It bettered our life tremendously," Burlingame said.
The apartments feature central air conditioning and solar thermal units on the rooftops for hot water.
Inside the former school, project contractor L.D. Russo Inc. was able to save much of the exterior and interior brickwork, providing a cozy, old-time feel inside and out.
L.D. Russo Vice President Nat Coughlin said restoring the exterior brick proved to be a challenge because over the years, a red substance coated the old bricks. A masonry specialist was called in to strip away that material while preserving the bricks.
The original plan called for covering up the interior bricks, but upon a request by the YWCA, L.D. Russo changed its designs to keep the brickwork exposed, Coughlin said.
"I'm exceptionally happy with how things turned out," the Newburyport resident said.
The 42 units mark the largest expansion of affordable housing in the 134-year history of YWCA Greater Newburyport, according to CEO John Feehan.
"It's really rewarding seeing families go in," he said.
Feehan, however, admitted that after spending close to $14 million on the project, much work remains in terms of meeting the region's affordable housing needs.
"It's a dent, unfortunately," he said. "We've got almost 500 people on the waiting list. But for the 42 families, it's very transformative."
While families are already living at the Residences at Salisbury Square, an official ribbon cutting is scheduled for Aug. 28 at 3 p.m. and will be attended by YWCA USA CEO Alejandra Y. Castillo, along with state and local officials.
"We're very happy she's coming. This is a massive expansion for YWCA Greater Newburyport and it's very closely tied to its mission," Feehan said.
YWCA Greater Newburyport has been providing affordable housing since 1885, but turned its focus to serving homeless families in 1998 and continues to reserve a majority of its apartments for homeless households, according to Feehan.
Feehan won't have much time to sit back and enjoy the project's completion. He said he's gearing up for what will be the next batch of affordable housing units to enter the market at the Hillside Center for Sustainable Living complex, which broke ground in May 2018.
Hillside, located off Route 1, will consist of 48 apartments in seven buildings, all incorporating solar power, homegrown agriculture, shared electric vehicles, secure bicycle storage, charging stations, recycling and composting, among other green practices. One 10-unit building has been earmarked for families needing affordable housing.
Feehan said ground will be broken in September with an estimated completion date of September 2020.
Former Newburyport City Councilor Ed Cameron, now a senior director at Pine Street Inn in Boston, applauded the Salisbury Square project and the overall work of the local YWCA but said the region as a whole remains in a "housing crisis"
"It's an issue in Newburyport where there's very few rentals," Cameron said, adding that the number has plummeted over the last 20 years as owners converted apartments and homes into condominiums.
Other challenges, according to the longtime affordable housing advocate, include a lack of funding, restrictive zoning regulations, and an overall sense of NIMBYism around the city.
"It's just tough all around, so we have a ways to go," Cameron said.