Mayor Highlights Housing, Crime At State of The City

Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini delivers annual State Of The City address (Dave Morrison file photograph for WHAV News.)

Speaking before a nearly packed City Council Chambers Tuesday night, Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini outlined the city’s top priorities in his annual State of the City address. Among some of the items on the mayor’s agenda were combating both “illegal housing” and “gang violence.”

In his speech, Fiorentini touted seven new housing and development projects currently underway in the Shoe City. But new housing wasn’t the only goal the mayor had in mind. Fiorentini made a commitment to improving existing housing units.

Stronger Home Inspectional Services

Fiorentini called for the city to take direct action on illegal housing by strengthening its inspectional services team. The mayor highlighted they city’s new, online permitting system that aims to combat problem housing.

“We’re determined to clean up illegal and substandard apartments,” Fiorentini said. “Within the past few weeks, we uncovered nine illegal housing and three illegal rooming houses here in the city. Now we need to add to that inspectional services team. Expanding inspections will improve our housing stock and help to bring the middle class back to areas where we need them the most.”

Gangs, Guns and Drugs

Fiorentini says that by improving housing, the city will be better equipped to control violent crime.

“For the past decade, we’ve attacked our number one problem of gangs, guns and drugs by building up our police force, adding 24 police (officers) over the past eight years in our budget,” said Fiorentini. “Today we have the largest number of budgeted police officers in decades and probably in our history. Last year, we added a new gang unit and brought in UTEC—a great gang fighting unit from Lowell—to work with kids to give them a job and a reason not to join a gang,” Fiorentini added.

The mayor says that his new approach in fixing the city’s housing stock and while targeting crime will help in bringing in more homeowners.

Read the full state of the city speech here:

  • Our unemployment rate in November was under 3% for the first time in decades.
  • Like all other Gateway cities we continue to have a gang problem, but overall crime in Haverhill has dropped in half over the past twelve (12) years and is now at a rate unseen for many years.
  • Our industrial parks are nearly filled and we now have to tell businesses that want to locate here that we might not be able to find a place that meets their needs.
  • Our city finances decimated first by the Hale debt and then by the recession, have clawed their way back and last year we hit a record amount of free cash reserves at over $13 million.
  • Our tax rate remains stable and reasonable, and we have been able to tax less than the max for four years in a row.
  • Our schools are being renovated, with a brand-new school open at Hunking and a new school or renovation planned at Consentino. Over the past 15 years, we have invested $110 million of State and local dollars to repair, renovate and rebuild our school buildings.
  • Our school scholastics have continued to show improvement. Last year the Tilton School and the high school both showed dramatic improvement in their MCAS scores.
  • Our parks and playgrounds are being upgraded and improved in every area of our city. This summer we will kick off a new and improved Riverside park project with a new walkway along the water.

And in our downtown, a total of seven (7) new projects, happening all at once, add a new page to the Haverhill Renaissance.  Let’s take a moment to revie

Downtown, Seven New Projects Underway

As you enter downtown from Lafayette Sq., coming in on Essex Street, the concrete building on the right is called the Chen Building.  It has been dilapidated and abandoned for decades, one of the last remnants of the downtown shoe district.  It is being remade into 62 units of modern housing, 40% of which will be available to young working families.

At the beginning of Essex Street, a long abandoned factory building which once was Ted’s Leather is being converted to 59 units of small, upscale, modern all-market rate housing, designed to attract single young urban professionals to our city and to our downtown.

As you turn around the corner to Washington Street, the building which once was Haverhill Music Center and earlier housed my grandfather’s grocery store will now be 14 units of modern market rate housing with a retail store or a restaurant on the first floor.

Further up Washington Street, the Trattoria El Forno Building, unused for nearly two decades, will become 24 units of modern market rate housing, with retail or a restaurant on the first floor.

On the other side of the railroad bridge on Washington Street, the abandoned Gerson Furniture Building will become 44 units of housing with preference for our veterans and their families.

On Merrimack Street, the wonderful Harbor Place project will add a new building and a new phase of the project, with 55 units of market rate housing.

And further down Merrimack Street, connecting the two sides of our downtown, the crown jewel of our downtown renaissance, Haverhill Heights, will add a new restaurant with dining along the waterfront, rooftop dining, a culinary arts institute from Northern Essex community college and 54 units of modern upscale housing.

This beautiful ten story building will become the centerpiece of a new downtown; with a new look that will help to attract investors from all over the State.  This great new project continues our boardwalk and continues our vision of connecting our citizens to their most precious asset, the Merrimack River.

All together, these seven (7) new projects will add an additional $100 million of new investment in our downtown, nearly $1 million in permit fees, will add 200-300 new construction jobs and will eventually add nearly half a million dollars a year to our tax base.

We started this journey 15 years ago, with a dilapidated downtown where little new investment had taken place in decades and with the largest municipal debt in the history of the Commonwealth.

Today, at this juncture of our journey, we had added millions of dollars to our tax rolls; our restaurant district has nearly 28 restaurants and is booming thanks in part to the nearly 1,000 new residents we have attracted to our downtown.

Our Future

But now is not the time to rest on our laurels, or to congratulate ourselves on our successes.  Now is the time to plan the next phase of our vision to revitalize the city, the next phase of the Haverhill renaissance.

Today, our business parks are mostly filled.  Our vision to turn old shoe factories into housing has been largely fulfilled, and today nearly every old factory has been converted or is under agreement.

This next phase of the Haverhill Renaissance must extend beyond downtown.  As people and businesses are being priced out of Boston, and Cambridge, and Somerville, we have an opportunity to attract new business and new residents and to build the city of tomorrowThis is our chance to plan the Haverhill of tomorrow. This is our time.

We must attract new businesses and new residents while still maintaining our schools, our environment and our unique quality of life that makes us proud to call Haverhill home.

Master Plan

The way to do that is with a master plan. This week, we begin work on the new master plan, to plan a city of tomorrow.  That city of tomorrow must include more locations for businesses to locate here and grow here.  This is job 1 for our new master plan.

Now, we have being working hard to bring jobs here.  We rezoned our industrial parks and rebranded them as business parks.

We rezoned the outskirts of our city to bring in an unprecedented about of retail and restaurants, and we rezoned our downtown to make it easy to convert old shoe factories to housing and to make our downtown the best restaurant zone north of the north end.  We gave out tax breaks sparingly but when we did, it was to keep top employers like Southwick here so that we can continue to say that nearly every Brooks Brothers suit is made right here in Haverhill.

The Need for new housing

If we are going to attract new business, there has to be a place for the employees of those businesses to live.

Our existing master plan concentrated our growth downtown. It worked.  It worked and we have $200 million in new investment and nearly 1,000 new residents.

Today we are at a crossroads.  Our old factory buildings are filled with new young residents.  As the young people who live downtown have children, downtown living will no longer be as attractive to them.  They, and the children and grandchildren of those who have lived here for years, need a place to move to, but right now, there is a critical lack of places to buy or rent.

The shortage of housing is causing rents to skyrocket to levels unheard of in this city.  Many families can no longer afford to live here.  This hit home to me last month when my daughter was looking to move to Massachusetts from New York City. She tells me some of the downtown Haverhill rents are higher than she pays to live in New York City.

Rents are too high for one simple reason:  supply and demand.  This isn’t just affordable housing, although there isn’t enough of that either. It is about all types of housing, from single family homes, to condominiums, to multifamily homes.

As Governor Baker said out last week, “we cannot solve our economic problems until we solve our housing problems”.

This lack of supply is caused by red tape and regulatory barriers.  Governor Baker has proposed a modest plan to loosen some of those barriers.  It is a good first step.

Improving Our Existing Housing Inventory

Haverhill must do its part.  In addition to finding a location for a new business park, the new master plan must work to expand and improve our housing stock.  Improving our housing inventory doesn’t just mean building new housing, although that has to be part of it.  It also means improving what we already have.

And that means a larger, more aggressive inspectional team.

This fall, we implemented a new, online permitting system that expedites the inspection of our hosing stock.

We are determined to clean up illegal and substandard apartments. Within the past few weeks, we uncovered nine (9) illegal housing units and three (3) illegal rooming houses.  Now we need to add to our inspectional services team.  Expanding inspections will improve our housing stock, help to bring the middle class back to areas where we most need them.

More One-Time Home Buyers

Improving our housing inventory also means attracting more first-time home buyers and owner occupancy to the core of our city.

Home ownership and owner occupancy is the best way to turn a neighborhood around.

We know that this road will not be an easy one, and we might fail.  But we cannot fail to try.

We will start by expanding our first-time homebuyers’ program. Our first-time home buyers’ program has already helped bring five (5) new homeowners to Cedar Street and the lower acre area.

Revitalizing the Mt. Washington Area

Unfortunately, there isn’t as much progress in the Mt. Washington Street area.  This year in the CDBG budget I will propose an increase in our first-time home buyers’ program and concentrate that increase in the Mt. Washington area.   I will also proposed expanding our inspectional forces and concentrating on that area.

Improving the Mt, Washington area also means recognizing and assisting those who are already doing great things up there.

And we have with us the founder of the Urban Kindness Program, Keith Boucher.

Keith bought a building at the corner of Bartlett Street and Washington Street.  He and Urban Kindness have partnered with another great group, the Community Action Commission, to start a new program called MakeIt Haverhill. This year that great partnership will start retraining people for jobs.

They will establish a pipeline with Southwick so that people from that area can be trained to work at Southwick and then have a job when the training is completed.  We are proud to support Urban Kindness and Community Action and we salute the great job they are doing.

Please join me in welcoming and honoring a man who has done so much for the Mt. Washington area, Keith Boucher.

Controlling Crime

Improving our housing stock will do one more very important thing:  it will help us to control crime.  For the past decade, we have attacked gangs, guns and drugs by building up our police force, adding 24 officers over the past eight (8) years. Today we have the largest number of budgeted police officers in our history. Last year, we added a new gang unit and bringing in UTEC to work with kids to give them a job and a reason not to join a gang.

The new approach that I propose this year will focus our resources towards fixing our housing stock and bringing in more homeowners.

Responsible residents are the eyes and ears of the police department.  They are our best crime fighting tool.

Along the Waterfront

Our old master plan helped to shape the direction of the city for a quarter of a century.  Our new master plan will help to set the focus for the next quarter century.

But we know that there are some problems which cannot wait.  We know one area where the future is now: the river front.

A few years ago, I announced a plan to rezone along the riverfront in Bradford so that all of our citizens would have access to our greatest asset: the Merrimack River.  The river belongs to all of us, not just to those fortunate enough to live next to the river.  To further that vision of expanded public access, we built a new rail trail, opened up the view of the river along Water Street, and rezoned along the riverfront in Bradford.

But it is time to go further.  Later this month, we will put out to bid once again the city owned property where the Ornsteen Heel Company once stood.  Later we will submit changes to our waterfront zoning to strengthen our ability to gain access to the waterfront.  We will expand our rail trail so that we can continue our vision of someday having our own emerald necklace of walkways, parks and playgrounds all along both sides of the Merrimack.   And later this month or next, our first developers of new housing along the river to take advantage of our new zoning will come before the council for their consideration.

Improving Education

Our next Master plan has to work to improve the lives of people who are already here and attract new families to Haverhill, the affordable alternative to Somerville, Cambridge and Salem.

Growing outside of downtown and bringing new families to our city brings unprecedented opportunities, and new challenges.  Those challenges themselves should be looked upon as opportunities to improve the city.  New families add youth and vitality to our city.

Many of the new families in Bradford helped to spearhead the drive to build a new Hunking School which today is the most beautiful school in region and a great tribute to our city.

In the planning for that new Hunking School we planned for the future.  Today while some schools are overcrowded, there are 190 vacant school desks in our school system most of them in Bradford.  This is a challenge and opportunity, an opportunity to redistrict and bring relief to areas where schools are overcrowded.  I know that our superintendent is making this a top priority.

Similarly, the growth that took place in the western end of our city a decade brought in new families, helped to revitalize an entire section of the city, and now gives us the momentum we need to restore and revitalize the Consentino School.  Our plans to renovate or rebuild the Consentino are on schedule and moving ahead and we will redo that school.

I am happy to report that we will be able to pay for that school without asking our voters for a debt exclusion tax increase.

The effort to improve education cannot stop at improving the quality of the buildings.   That is the beginning, not the end.  Last year, the Tilton School and the High School made tremendous progress on their MCAS scores. The Tilton School was one of the most improved schools in the State.  Our academic progress needs to continue and under our new superintendent, I am confident it will.

Conclusion

We have come so far in the past decade and a half.  Our downtown, our neighborhoods, our schools and our finances have improved.

Because of that, and because of the great work of all of you, I can say confidently tonight, the state of our city is strong. 

Join with me on the next leg of this journey to make it even stronger.  This is Haverhill’s chance and this is Haverhill’s time. 

Thank you for listening.

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