By Amaris Castillo
DRACUT — The Housing Authority is inching closer to making the long-awaited senior housing complex in town a reality.
But authority members are faced with a new vision for the project — one that would relinquish the town’s full control of the property for some time.
In 2015, town officials and the Housing Authority chose to build a new senior housing complex on a 17-acre parcel of land at 144 Greenmont Ave., after a consultant’s study found that location would be cheaper than tearing down the old Town Hall Annex and building the facility there.
The land was purchased by the town in 2012, and the deed was transferred to the Housing Authority, according to Housing Authority member Debra DeWitt Ahern.
But funding mechanisms have changed since then, according to Selectman Jesse Forcier, who sits on the Housing Authority and the selectmen’s housing subcommittee. Because of that, authority members put out a request for proposals last week to see if a nonprofit agency or private developer would be willing to see the project to completion.
According to the RFP document, the Housing Authority intends to convey the property with a “long-term ground lease to the developer, with deed restrictions.” The deadline for proposals by interested developers is July 10 at 2 p.m., and the Housing Authority expects to make its decision on Aug. 28.
“The mission statement of the Housing Authority has always been to build affordable housing on that site,” Forcier said, “and that’s precisely what we’re doing.”
Brian Bond, who used to sit on the Housing Authority and has openly criticized the board, disagrees. He said he is concerned that low-income seniors will be left out of the planned complex now that officials close to the project are eyeing a private or nonprofit developer to take over the project.
“I’m still concerned about senior housing and that project,” said Bond, who co-hosts “The Dracut Connection,” a political talk show that airs on Dracut Access Television. “I have an emotional, invested interest in it.”
Town Meeting in June 2015 approved the Community Preservation Committee to appropriate an additional $3 million to the Housing Authority to assist in the funding to construct an affordable housing development for seniors.
According to Housing Authority Executive Director Mary Karabatsos, it has been a goal of the authority to build a senior housing complex for the past six or seven years, but the federal and state funding process has changed over that time period.
“Initially, we wanted to build a 60-unit development and get federal funding — it’s called Section 202 — and what happened was that funding just went away,” Karabatsos said, adding that the state does not want housing authorities to be developers.
“They cut that program, so then we started looking toward the state, and we wanted to keep control of the project and we wanted it to be, basically, very low-income housing … but unfortunately the state does not fund projects like that anymore.”
Forcier said that for two years, authority members have reached out for funding mechanisms through the Department of Housing and Community Development, under which the Housing Authority operates.
Though trying to secure a nonprofit agency or private developer was not the original plan, Housing Authority members say it will still bring affordable housing to Dracut.
“I’m not very happy with this whole situation, leasing it out,” said Housing Authority Chair Russell Taylor. “I’m not real crazy about this idea about putting it in the hands of a private company unless it’s for a short term, where they build it, they have it for 10 to 15 years, and turn it over to us.”
There are about 250 Dracut residents on a wait list for low-income housing.
According to Taylor, the original plan for the 60-unit complex was to have the majority of the apartments filled with seniors who are on the list. He said the worst-case scenario is as low as eight people would be removed and moved into the complex.
“Even with a nonprofit, this has to sustain itself,” Taylor said. “Some of these people are only paying $500 or $600 dollars, so you couldn’t pay for itself at that rate. It wouldn’t sustain itself.”
Karabatsos said the goal is to fill the complex with more people of a lower-income status.
“We do have some people that are higher-income on our list,” she said.
On April 24, Bond live-streamed himself twice on “The Dracut Connection” Facebook page — moments before he walked into the Housing Authority meeting and again of his public comments to members.
“Now the folks at the Dracut Housing Authority want to give it to a nonprofit or a private developer for a 99-year lease,” Bond said as he sat in a vehicle. “To me, that’s a major problem. I don’t like it and we gotta let everybody know.”
Taylor said last week that he wouldn’t vote to lease out the future complex for that long.
Ahern commented under a post by Bond on “The Dracut Connection” Facebook page, saying affordable senior housing is what was voted on in the town of Dracut.
“AFFORDABLE,” she wrote.
“Lies it’s not what town meeting was told and voted on,” one of the show’s administrators replied.
Ahern defended her stance recently, saying she supports the project.
“Because if we don’t do this, we will have nothing,” she said, adding that the need for low-income, affordable senior housing in Dracut is undeniable. “Is it the ideal situation that we hope for? No. But it’s going to give us at least some housing units that are affordable.”
Follow Amaris Castillo on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.