Some of the windows are boarded up. The red concrete steps are broken and chipped. Even the “Fallout shelter” sign in the basement looks a little rough.
No matter. When Rick Whiting sees Auburn’s former Webster School, he sees potential.
Webster closed down four years ago. A water leak and time have taken some toll on the nearly 100-year-old, three-story brick building in a tight, busy neighborhood. On the inside, carpet is bumpy from warped wood floors underneath and green lockers hang open, at attention.
Whiting, executive director of the Auburn Housing Authority, hopes to buy Webster from the city at the end of summer for $350,000 and start work this fall creating 28 apartments for low-income residents. Families will live in classrooms and in a gym.
Webster is one of five subsidized housing projects in various stages around the Twin Cities, which finds itself in the midst of a subsidized housing bubble. Two others opened earlier this year.
Officials say it’s part coincidence — at least two projects were conceived five years ago. Part of the renovation push is due to the Legislature — a historic tax credit passed into law has heated up interest in turning old properties into housing. Part is demand — some 8,000 families here can’t comfortably afford the average two-bedroom rent, according to the state.
And part is the area’s potential. Developers want in.
“The same sort of concentration that’s happening in Lewiston now happened in Portland maybe 10 years ago,” said Dale McCormick, director of the Maine State Housing Authority.
Already in the pipeline:
• Blake Street Apartments in Lewiston, 10 units for the former homeless, families living in shelters or in cars, breaks ground next month on a vacant lot;
• Franklin School apartments in Auburn, six units for the former homeless and disabled, starts renovation this fall;
• Webster, with a mix of one, two and three-bedrooms, starts renovation this fall;
• Intown Manor in Lewiston, 32 units of senior housing in the former assisted living facility and former orphanage, could start renovation in 2011;
• The Lofts at Bates Mill, at 52 units, the only project mixing market rate and low-income housing, could also start renovation in 2011.
Opened earlier this year:
• Vincent Square in Auburn, 17 senior housing units, in January; and
• Birch Hill Elderly Housing in Lewiston, 20 units, in April.
Saving the old, making new
Combined, the projects would add 147 subsidized housing units to L-A, on top of roughly 2,900 already here. Most of the new development counts as below-market affordable housing, available at a flat, low rate to those who earn under a certain amount. (The alternative, Section 8 housing projects or vouchers, charge 30 percent of a renter’s income.)
“We think we’ll easily fill them,” said Don Kniseley, executive director at Tedford Housing in Brunswick, behind the two former homeless projects.
The Lewiston effort is five years old, the Auburn one three-and-a-half. He’d hoped to have both open by now, but various delays slowed the works.
Kniseley said someone at the city encouraged him to consider the old Franklin School, which closed in November 2005.
“It’s pretty run down and sad looking,” he said. “It’s a little expensive because we have to do asbestos and lead paint abatement and those kind of things, but we think it’s going to be a beautiful, beautiful project and a real compliment to that neighborhood.”
At Webster, Whiting said he’ll do as much as possible to keep the character and original appearance, leaving some lockers and blackboards. It needs new windows, sound-proofing, insulation, an elevator. A Headstart program will use one of the two gyms and the restored auditorium.
“This was a state-of-the-art building in 1916,” he said.
Right now, Whiting’s trying to get Webster on the National Register of Historic Places, a step toward state and federal tax credits that could cover almost half the project.
Mike D. Johnson at the Maine Historic Preservation Commission said that since January 2008, when the state expanded its historic tax credits, more than $100 million worth of projects have applied.
“We’ve seen a lot of activity, particularly with mill buildings and schools,” said Johnson, a historic preservationist.
When it’s used to create affordable housing, the state credit is 30 percent, paired with a federal credit of 20 percent — but the building has to be on the historic register, he said.
“That’s definitely an important piece of our project; our project wouldn’t be feasible without it,” said Nathan Szanton of Maine Workforce Housing, the developer behind the Bates Mill proposal.
He’s looking to get the mill on the historic register.
Also influencing his timing, Szanton said: the four-year-old Brookings Institution report that drew attention to preserving historic structures.
“In order for Maine to do well economically, we need to invest in and bring out places that make us special, unique,” he said. “Turning them from a liability into an asset.”
The whys, why now
Dan Brennan, MSHA director of development, said the pace of new subsidized housing statewide has held steady. The federal government gives Maine between $2.5 million and $3 million each year in low-income housing tax credits, making way for 150 to 200 units.
Areas are studied for need and saturation before new projects get a green light.
"Developers come to us with their projects and compete,” Brennan said, getting points for projects in downtown spaces, something that’s helped Lewiston.
In the past, developers promised to keep new units affordable for so many decades, scoring more points the longer they pledged, according to Peter Merrill, MSHA’s communications and planning director. Six years ago, the requirement became a flat 90 years.
Twin Cities project costs range from $166,000 to $243,000 per unit, including costs like escrow for maintenance.
“When I first got here, the debate we used to have, for instance, (was) you could build one apartment unit in Portland or two houses in Cornish, so what is the best public policy?” Merrill said.
Subsidized housing can have the side effect of keeping local private rents down, Merrill said, but that’s not the goal.
With roughly half of the people living in subsidized housing being elderly or disabled, “society has to have just a modicum of compassion for people who are unable to take care of themselves,” Merrill said.
It’s housing for those who need help, McCormick said, along with making good economic development sense.
“Lack of housing where jobs are stresses the roads, stresses the family, stresses the budget, stresses the city services,” she said.
There's also the issue of eyesore.
“Having a big empty building in the middle of a neighborhood, it’s a real negative impact on people,” said Whiting. It attracts vandals, graffiti.
In the late 1960s, Whiting attended the seventh, eighth and ninth grades in the old Webster School, the school he's looking to revitalize now.
“My sister was my teacher (one year), which was horrifying,” he said, walking its old halls in early June. “She couldn’t give me an A.”
He remembers passing instead with a B-plus.