YWCA, Habitat for Humanity talk affordable housing efforts

HEATHER ALTERISIO/Staff photoThe Rev. Joan MacPherson, pastor of Main Street Congregational Church in Amesbury, speaks during a panel discussion on affordable housing Wednesday night. With her are, from left, John Feehan, executive director of YWCA Newburyport; Jacques Du Preez, Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity’s director of marketing; and Vicki Carr of YWCA Newburyport.

NEWBURYPORT — The Decent Housing Changes Lives panel discussed the importance of affordable housing on Wednesday and the dilemmas organizations such as the YWCA and Habitat for Humanity face before, during and after building the homes.

The event, which was the fourth installment of nonprofit Pennies for Poverty's "Invisible Neighbor Series," took place at Central Congregational Church.

The speakers included Vicki Carr of YWCA Newburyport; Jacques Du Preez, Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity’s director of marketing; John Feehan, executive director of YWCA Newburyport; and the Rev. Joan MacPherson, pastor of Main Street Congregational Church.

Andy Dear, a Pennies for Poverty board member, moderated the panel discussion, initiating conversation about projects in the area and what happens after people move into affordable housing.

"Affordable housing is not easy to develop," Feehan said of his experience and in particular, the YWCA's affordable rental units at the Residences at Salisbury Square.

Feehan explained a number of issues that arise when affordable housing is pursued, including limited funding from the state.

"From the state's perspective, before they fund a project, they want to make sure that it's ready to go," Feehan said.

This means having a site, zoning and other aspects secured first, he added. So, before an organization can even apply for funding, it has already "spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get into the competitive round," Feehan said.

Carr, who oversees applications for the Residences at Salisbury Square, said they received more than 800 applications for the 42 units, which emphasizes the need for such developments.

"It's not all bricks and mortar just getting someone into a unit that's stable and decent housing," Carr said. It's also "helping them kind of advance."

Many people move in without furniture, so the YWCA assists people with these types of needs. It's a community effort, though, she explained, adding, "People have already started forming alliances or friendships."

Residents look out for each other in small ways, whether it be sharing a dinner or helping someone navigate the grocery store.

While the YWCA works to develop affordable rentals, Habitat for Humanity constructs owner-occupied homes.

MacPherson, a member of Habitat’s family selection committee, spoke about the selection process and how "exciting" it can be for families, but noted "delays are hard."

When a family is selected, they have to continue living in the situation they are in until their homes are built. This process can take any length of time depending on the obstacles they face moving forward with the build.

There are also other factors to consider when building affordable housing, including energy efficiency and heating costs, which Du Preez brought up.

"It takes time," Feehan said of the entire process and starting families on the path to stability. "Clearly, one of the first things that people need in order to stabilize their lives is good quality housing."

He reminded the audience that getting a family into "safe, decent and conducive" housing is a huge advantage, "but that doesn't mean that they suddenly came out of poverty."

Even if it's easy for a person to find a job, "It's not necessarily easy to get a well-paying job," he said.

On top of that, many tenants are struggling with health issues and disabilities, and may not have transportation to travel to and from a job. 

"For other tenants, safe, decent, affordable housing is a springboard," Feehan continued. "For them, it's a real opportunity to move forward."

For more information or to volunteer, go to penniesforpoverty.org.

Staff writer Heather Alterisio can be reached via email at halterisio@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3149. Follow her on Twitter @HeathAlt.

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