NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 31, 2013

Paying dividends

Rehab program improves housing for 168 families

By Angeljean Chiaramida
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALISBURY — Since 1998, a little-known Salisbury program has invested more than $4.2 million to help 168 low- to moderate-income families in town upgrade deteriorating homes and keep roofs over their heads.

Local officials say Salisbury is one of a few small communities that have repeatedly won favor for its Housing Rehabilitation Program — in part because it has successfully helped struggling households, many with elderly and young adults, stay in homes in dire need of repair.

For 11 of the past 14 years, the town has received federal funds awarded by the state through the highly competitive Community Development Block Grant program.

Salisbury leaders consider the program so worthwhile that they request town planning director Lisa Pearson include funding for housing rehabilitation efforts in her annual applications for CDBG money. Pearson’s $500,000 grant application this year will once again seek funds for what Town Manager Neil Harrington considers a “wonderful” benefit for residents in need.

But the Salisbury Housing Rehabilitation Program, managed by director Lisa Beaulieu, doesn’t rely solely on CDBG monies. Beaulieu is adept at finding other home repair programs in the state to allow Salisbury’s CDBG money to stretch farther.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development funds have been accessed for improvements for the elderly. Gloucester-based ACTION helps when weatherization repairs are needed. Community Action, among others, can also provide revenue.

Beaulieu said the program isn’t simple, but it can assist financially strapped residents who find themselves in older homes with safety and habitability problems.

To qualify, participants must live in Salisbury and meet low- or moderate-income household requirements in accordance with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

For example, to qualify as low income, a single-person household can earn no more than $32,000 a year; income is capped at $37,200 for a two-person household, $41,840 for a three-person household and $46,500 for a four-person household.

Households can earn more and still qualify as moderate income. Those thresholds are $47,150 for a single person, $53,900 for two people, $60,000 for three and $67,350 for four.

The program has a maximum repair spending limit of $30,000 per household without the involvement of lead removal, $35,000 if lead removal is included, Beaulieu said. The average spent per unit in Salisbury over the years is $25,974, she said.

When an applicant is income-qualified for the program, Beaulieu sends Philip Jewett, the program’s rehabilitation inspector specialist, to determine repair priorities. Based on what Jewett finds, Beaulieu issues a request for sealed bids from the program’s approved list of contractors and craftsmen. The lowest bid is chosen, she said.

The Housing Rehabilitation Program has paid for bringing electrical and plumbing up to code, new roofs and siding, repairs to structural elements and flooring undermined by water or storm damage, weatherization and heating improvements such as furnace, insulation and windows; improvements to unsafe stairs, in addition to lead paint removal and other safety-related issues.

Beaulieu said the program isn’t designed for property owners to increase the value of their homes, then sell and walk away with more money in their pockets. A lien for the amount of the repairs is placed on properties in the program. The lien lasts 15 years for moderate-income households. For low-income participants, after five years, the lien is decreased 10 percent annually for each following year.

Should homeowners sell before the lien expires, they must refund the money, with the money going back into the program to help fix other Salisbury homes, Beaulieu said.

Once a home is repaired, it becomes part of Salisbury’s inventory of low- to moderate-income housing. The state requires municipalities to have at least 10 percent of its housing in that price range, which in turn allows them to prevent developers from building large subdivisions under the state’s Chapter 40B regulations.

The program has encountered houses that are in such severe shape that insurance companies will no longer write policies for them because they’re considered too unsafe and the company’s exposure to liability for fire or injury is too great. The inability to acquire insurance can snowball into a bigger problem, Beaulieu said. For example, many financial institutions will pull the mortgage on uninsured homes, she said.

That’s the situation Anthony Smith found himself in after his mother died and the Elm Street home he grew up in began to crumble around him. A working college student before his mother fell ill, Smith quit both his job and school to care for her.

“The house had had problems and my mother always said she’d get to them,” Smith said. “But her husband had died, she didn’t have a man around the house and things just didn’t get fixed.”

Following her death, Smith found himself dealing with not only his grief, but a deteriorating home he now owned.

“Everything happened at once and I couldn’t believe how fast,” Smith said. ‘The roof just poured water into the house whenever it rained, the insurance company said if I didn’t fix the (outside) brick stairs and retaining wall, it would cancel the policy; the floor was buckling because of the water damage, it went on and on.

“My mother had just died, and I didn’t have the money for the repairs. I just wanted to curl up on the couch and pull a blanket over my head.”

Luckily, Smith wasn’t allowed to give up. A relative knowledgeable about Salisbury’s rehabilitation program literally drove him over to meet Beaulieu. Smith was income-qualified and placed on the waiting list for rehabilitation funds. His name finally reached the top of the list and work has now begun.

With a job again and the repairs started, Smith said he can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s the same light that has shone for 167 other Salisbury families.

For more information on Salisbury’s Housing Rehabilitation Program, call Lisa Beaulieu at 978-463-2266 or drop by the Planning Department on the first floor of Salisbury Town Hall.