State Housing Secretary Augustus Gets First-Hand Look at Haverhill’s Housing Crisis at Vargas Roundtable

State Housing Secretary Edward M. Augustus and state Rep. Andy X. Vargas. (WHAV News photograph.)

(Additional photographs below.)

Haverhill’s—and the state’s—housing crisis came clearer into view Wednesday when state Housing Secretary Edward M. Augustus heard about residents unable to afford homes or stay in the city.

State Rep. Andy X. Vargas, who sponsored the roundtable, said Haverhill is “leading on the housing crisis” with its permitting and building of units, but Augustus is taking it from there.

“Everyone agrees we have a crisis, but not everyone agrees on what the solution should be, and he’s creating that consensus and creating a path forward, that’s how we get there,” he said.”

Vargas praised the CommonWealth Builders program, which in 2021 brought 10 units of new housing to the site of the former St. George’s Catholic Church in Mount Washington. He explained developers can get up to $250,000 per unit that they build. Vargas also suggested it is the right program for a vacant lot owned by developers of Harbor Place in downtown Haverhill.

“That’s what I would like in that hole in the ground there, CommonWealth Builders. You have riverfront property here where folks in Haverhill could build some equity in a property that’s right on the riverfront,” he said.

Bread and Roses, which developed the Mount Washington project, was represented at the roundtable by Executive Director Annmary I. Connor.

Haverhill YMCA Regional Executive Director Tracy Fuller illustrated the extent of the problem when she noted the nonprofit has 200 people on its waiting list for YMCA rooms. Augustus added the example of a college graduate that can’t accept an employers’ offer because of unreasonable living costs.

“Hey, I’m going to have to spend 50% of my income if I stay in Massachusetts, but if I go to North Carolina or Texas, I’m going to spend 30% of my income, and too often we’re losing those folks,” he said.

He said first-time homebuyers are missing out when sale prices go thousands of dollars above asking price, adding, even apartments are out of reach for many. “Now, we’re even seeing bidding wars in rental spaces which is just crazy,” the secretary said.

Haverhill Mayor Melinda E. Barrett pointed out the city approved many units in recent years and the majority will go forward. While she said the city needs housing at all levels, she’s worried existing resident are increasingly unable to stay in the city. “My concern is of the over 1,700 units. I think maybe 150 are actually for homeowners.”

Responding, Augustus told Barrett the governor’s Affordable Homes Act encourages homeownership. The bill covers the Commonwealth Builders program, which he said “really helps create actual units of homeownership opportunities;” MassDREAMS, which stands for Delivering Real Equity and Mortgage Stability and helps with home down payment assistance; and a proposed new program, Affordable Housing Production Tax Credit, which would create homeownership for those earning up to 120% of Area Median Income.

State Sen. Barry R. Finegold called on other communities to do their share and for more market rate housing, saying, “We’re not going to subsidize our way out of this.”

Kassie Infante, who serves as associate director of operations at Abundant Housing Massachusetts said part of the problem is neighborhood opposition to new building. “They don’t want families moving in.” As a Haverhill Board of Appeals member, she recently voted in favor of duplex homes in the Wood School neighborhood that was defeated.

Haverhill Community Development Division Director Andrew K. Herlihy lamented that many residents are “poor enough to qualify” for aid programs, but “not rich enough” to afford today’s prices.

Augustus also argued what are known as accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, and more traditionally known as in-law apartments, is part of the solution.

Developers Francis J. Bevilacqua III and Theodore P. Ammon called on the state to not overlook assistance to smaller housing projects.

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