The Planning Board voted 5-0 to recommend the Town Council approve the sale of a town-owned property on Sanborn Road for the development of affordable senior housing.
Town Manager Kevin Smith told the Board at its Sept. 9 meeting that there is no affordable senior housing in Londonderry’s inventory, and that it’s tough to find a developer who would bring such a project to fruition, due to the arduous process of obtaining necessary tax credits.
“Frankly, there aren’t a lot of developers who do affordable senior housing. The criteria is very cumbersome for obtaining federal tax credits, and the pool of money the State gets to give to builders in credits is limited,” said Steven Lewis, a developer who has been recognized for his high-quality affordable senior housing projects throughout New Hampshire, the most recently completed being in Salem.
Lewis is proposing construction of three 36- to 40-unit affordable housing apartment buildings in a campus style, with a community garden, a playground where tenants’ visiting grandchildren could play, and extensive trails that would provide connectivity to the Londonderry Rail Trail, which abuts the site.
“Age-restricted housing doesn’t mean you’re in a wheelchair. Our buildings are wheelchair accessible, but a lot of people want to do activities,” Lewis said.
The community garden is an important feature of the senior housing developments Lewis and Kleiner have completed in other communities.
“Tenants have said they didn’t meet people until they met them in the community garden. They would have their own little farmer’s market,” said Lewis, who previously lived in one of his affordable senior housing units.
Lewis told the Board he and Kleiner don’t just develop their housing projects; they also manage them closely and ensure they are well maintained long after construction is complete.
“Our goal is, we don’t want people to look at our buildings and say, ‘oh, that’s federal housing,’” he said. “We try to create social gathering places scattered across the site.”
Every floor has its own laundry facility, with a small living room area to create social interactions.
“We try to make it feel like home, not an apartment,” Lewis said. “We have a long waiting list because people love living there.”
To qualify for occupancy in the senior housing development Lewis completed in Atkinson, tenants must be 55 years or older, with a qualifying annual income of no more than $35,760. The income qualification for two occupants is $40,860 annually.
The controlled rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $860 per month, and $1,080 per month for a two-bedroom apartment.
Rent includes heat, hot water and cooking fuel.
The Federal government sets rents and verifies tenants meet financial criteria, according to Lewis, noting many communities he has worked with have been relieved to learn they are not responsible for the administrative task.
Smith said selling the town-owned land on Sanborn Road to Lewis for $10 would provide an incentive to attract the in-demand developer to revitalize the site, which has environmental issues.
Lewis said the $10 sale price would also make his application for the federal tax credits stand out from others in that funding cycle, with the Town’s investment in the project showing a need for affordable senior housing in Londonderry.
Additionally, Lewis said the Federal government shows preference for projects proposing the rehabilitation of “Brownfield” sites, properties that may be complicated by the presence of potential hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants.
“This isn’t a particularly desirable piece of land to developers because of the environmental issues,” he said.
Former fire chief and Planning Board member Al Sypek said LeClair’s Garage, previously located at the property in question, stored thousands of tires on the site, and they caught fire multiple times.
“We responded to two fires there and used chemical foam to put the tires out,” he said. “As time went on, the (New Hampshire) Department of Environmental Services (DES) removed the tires a bit at a time.”
Member Leitha Reilly asked if the developer is confident it’s possible to remediate the site and ensure its safety for potential tenants.
“The federal government wouldn’t allow us to do something if it wasn’t thoroughly investigated. We’re planning to put this development on the bulk of the site that was undisturbed,” Lewis said, noting most of the areas on the site have been remediated. “Your question is my question, and I will be investigating the site over the next four to six months. Its soil potentials are good, but when you have soils that percolate quickly, there’s potential for contamination.
Town Councilor Joe Green, who serves as liaison to the Elder Affairs Committee, said they have invested time cleaning up the site and it is being reviewed by the State.
Lewis said preparing the site for development will require of him a substantial investment; but if the Town is willing to sell him the parcel for $10, it’s an investment he’s willing to make.
“I wouldn’t have wasted your time if this was something I thought would be lethal. There’s a huge file at DES, and I’ve read it,” he said, noting it presents a level of hazardous waste he believes can be dealt with. “I’m not afraid of it, but I’m intelligently cautious of it.”
In order for the project to move forward with the federal tax credits, Lewis told the Board he will have to provide to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority an opinion letter proving it’s a safe “brownfield.”
“We need to have a third party review it without any prejudice toward it,” he said.
Members asked Lewis what the timeline for the project would be, should the Town Council approve the sale of the property.
Lewis said his projects move slowly to ensure they’re done right; but if everything goes according to plan, it’s possible the proposed apartments could see occupancy in 2018.
It’s possible Lewis and his business partner, Tim Kleiner, could enter the fall 2016 funding cycle. They would hire a firm to develop a site plan, which would be reviewed by the State, a process t hat usually takes four to six months.
Preliminary applications for the federal tax credits are due to the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority by July of 2016.
Funding would be announced at the end of October or early November; and the developers could break ground in the spring of 2017.
Lewis said the project would increase the Town’s tax base without taxing its school system.
Having checked in on previous projects, Lewis said he has found they provide more in added tax revenue than they use in services.
“It has been very loud and clear from residents and seniors the town is aging, and we don’t have any affordable senior housing,” Green told the Board. “We need more solutions to this issue. I think finding (Lewis) was a gold nugget. I love the project, and I’m really behind it. I think we’re way behind on this project, and we need to move it forward as quickly as we can. I think this process has been brewing for the last four to five years, and it has been a top priority for us.
“It’s the right time,” he said. “We need to strike while the iron’s hot.”
With the Planning Board’s recommendation, the proposal will move on to the Conservation Commission for consideration, then to the Town Council for two rounds of public hearings and a final vote.