Every week, Flat River Outreach Ministries fields 5-6 calls from people looking for affordable housing in the city. These are individuals and families who have discovered most of the apartment complexes and rentals in Lowell have waiting lists. Or they have money for rent but not a deposit. Their reasons are varied, but their need is the same.
In 2016, FROM purchased five city lots, containing two houses, as the start of an effort to address the lack of affordable housing in the city. The houses – at 504 and 512 Main Street – are located on the east side of town and include the Denny’s Tourist Rooms building.
After acquiring the properties, FROM worked to update and improve the buildings by installing smoke alarms, replacing locks, updating lighting and adding a laundry room. However, the condition of the buildings is such that the non-profit decided to form a Main Street Housing initiative and task force to oversee the development of new affordable housing in the city.
One Building Removed to Make Way for New Housing
The building at 512 Main Street was unoccupied and removed this past summer. The fire department first used it for a training exercise and then it was demolished. Meanwhile, six people continue to live at 504 Main Street, and that house is expected to remain standing until a new housing complex is completed. It is uncertain whether the building will be removed after that time.
“Our actual first choice would be to remodel it,” says Jodie Seese, a FROM board member and volunteer project manager. However, it remains to be seen whether that is economically feasibility or if it would be less costly start over with a new structure. “When it’s empty, we’re going to assess [that],” Seese says.
That decision is still 4-5 years in the future though, and FROM says it is committed to maintaining the property at 504 Main Street until new housing is built next door. In the meantime, the non-profit is making improvements inside and working with tenants to create a positive living environment. When the new building is completed, current tenants can apply for a unit in the new space.
Removing Barriers to Affordable Housing
As for what that new building will entail, FROM envisions a combination of rental units and communal spaces such as a shared dining room. Current plans call for 22 units that will be mainly studios but also include some one bedroom and two bedroom options.
“They’re going to be nice, but they’re not going to be big,” Seese says. She anticipates the units will work as long-term housing for singles and couples, but that families may use a unit temporarily while looking for more suitable, long-term accommodations. Rental rates haven’t been established yet, but these units will not be subsidized. Units will be rented on a month-to-month basis.
Seese says many of those in need of affordable housing in the city have barriers unrelated to their income. They may be able to make monthly payments but lack the cash for an initial deposit. Others may have poor credit that makes it difficult to be approved for a lease. FROM plans to provide support services to help residents address money management, employment and other challenges they may face.
Current residents of 504 Main Street meet for monthly tenant meetings and have drawn up a list of community expectations. Residents of the new building will likewise be invited to take part in regular meetings and the creation of rules that will benefit everyone.
Construction Expected to Start in 2020
To facilitate construction of the new building, FROM has created Main Street Housing LLC. A capital campaign to raise funds will begin next spring, and FROM is currently exploring various grant options. Construction is slated for 2020 and could take 18 months or more to complete.
Since the building site is in the floodplain, parking will be located on the ground floor and living units will be located above that. Seese says the plans call for an exterior that will disguise the parking and provide a “residential vibe.” The building will have a gabled roof and other features to help it blend in with the surrounding neighborhood.
Seese says nearby business owners have responded positively to the plan and the improvements already made at 504 Main Street. She has heard some concerns from people who wonder if FROM is committed to maintaining the project in the long-term. To that, Seese says, “We have no intention of building this and selling it.”
The project is dear to the mission of FROM. “We see housing as a very fundamental basic need,” Seese says. The Main Street Housing project is intended to fill that need and keep people in Lowell instead of forcing them out of the community to find affordable living space elsewhere.
FROM is currently working with a representative of engineering firm Williams & Works to ensure their plan meets city zoning requirements. The project will also need to go through a site plan review by the Planning Commission before construction can begin.