The Herald News, Sunday, December 18, 2016 – Page A1

By Michael Holtzman
Email: mholtzman@heraldnews.com

Just what does Fall River’s housing stock look like?

The data compiled by professionals this year was aimed at identifying the answer to that question and along the way added support to the kind of statement by Rep. Carole Fiola, who commissioned the report, about some of the city’s abandoned tenements.

“Wh wants to live in Corky Row?” she said of multi-family houses she called “decrepit, abandoned and disgraceful” for more than a decade.

“Nobody would want to,” Fiola answered at the first public session highlighting nearly two years of group work and final report compiled by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Public Policy Center.

Each of eight facts the PPC supplied from its data and research are followed by recommendations Fiola said came from members of their “housing policy working group” issued in a public presentation two weeks ago.

“Develop and submit a plan for the demolition and reuse of the abandoned Corky Row properties and reuse of the (previously demolished) Watuppa Heights site to the Massachusetts Department of Community Housing and Community Development for consideration and approval,” says this recommendation for the Fall River Housing Authority to do in conjunction with the mayor and City Council.

28 percent of housing units subsidized
The first two researched “facts” associated with this situation divulge that 28 percent or more than 7,000 units of public and private rental housing in Fall River are subsidized.

The PCC study, titled “Towards an Evidenced-Based Housing Policy in Fall River” was commissioned in February.

At that time, Fiola had asked the questions in an interview: What happened to our city? Why has there been such an increase in low-income housing in the city? And, how did this happen?

“It doesn’t surprise you,” Fiola said at the recent public meeting, that in just five years through 2014 multi-family owner-occupied units decreased 16.6 percent and absentee ownership has increased.

“Unlike similar Gateway Cities, Fall River’s home ownership has been stagnant for decades,” says the PCC’s 87-page report.

It follows that only 35.8 percent of city homes are owned, and are likely to remain a minority.

City Administrator Cathy Ann Viveiros said one of her strongest recommendations concurred with a method to better support “market rate housing” by reinforcing communities – mostly cities – that meet the Chapter 40B 10 percent affordable housing target.

The recommendation suggests legislation be filed so a percentage of Community Preservation Act funds could be used toward market-rate housing and not affordable housing for those, like Fall River, meeting the state’s target.

The report says how home ownership has disappeared in Fall River beyond the numbers.

While a recommendation says programs need to be developed to increase owner-occupied home ownership, especially among first-time homebuyers, Community Development Agency Director Mike Dion said that’s been done for years.

The increase cited says Community Development Block Grant funding should increase from $100,00 to $300,000, and should offer incentives to police, firefighters, teachers and others so they buy single- and multi-family, owner-occupied homes in the city.

Dion said that’s an important concept, and he recommends increasing the figure to $200,000. He noted the first-time homebuyer program is open to all and the loans the CDA gives out convert to grants when the homebuyer remains in the home for five years. The recommendation proposed suggests a grant after 10 years, twice the duration.

Dion also cautioned, “When you increase the amount to first-time homebuyers, it’s also decreasing funds for housing rehabilitation programs.”

Fact 2 says the Housing Authority owns 2,304 of the housing units and with the state and federal housing vouchers it manages total 4,308 units, or 61 percent of the subsidized units.

It also says the Housing Authority may be “negatively contributing to property values” by failing, for example, to have the acceptable plans for Corky Row’s abandoned homes.

The report also identified the agency’s inadequate legal staffing and monitoring.

Sullivan: ‘We do audits.’
The recommendations from those facts issued by stakeholders that Fiola identified generally included an “audit of the FRHA to determine the proficiency of its overall management structure.”

Dave Sullivan, Housing Authority executive director, told The Herald News in an interview that he questioned several recommendations from the stakeholders related to his agency.

“We do financial audits,” he said, saying they’re required under HUD funding regulations. He added, “We’d be more than happy to share information like that.”

To demolish abandoned public properties in Corky Row, Sullivan said he’s sought state DHCD authorization “over and over” and had not received the required documentation.

“It is in their ballpark,” he said a couple of times.

Asked if this housing policy data coupled with stakeholder recommendations, pushes approval ahead, would benefit the Housing Authority and the city, Sullivan said, “Absolutely.”

He acknowledged a lack of legal counsel at the Housing Authority.

As Fiola pointed out at the meeting Sullivan and perhaps a dozen stakeholders attended, the authority went from a single half-time lawyer to recently adding a full-timer to the staff. She said that was not enough, and Fall River has a poorer record in housing court than other communities because of a lack of legal preparation.

“My goal is to have three attorneys,” Sullivan said.

Again asked if the report could spur needed hiring, Sullivan said it could, but “I can see obstacles to that – they can take it out of your operational funds.”

Sullivan also made the point the Housing Authority units are inspected annually, sometimes more often, unlike other subsidized housing that may not be required to have inspections.

Fact 2 said the Housing Authority and its lack of legal staff may be contributing to not handling tenant complaints and processing tenant convictions.

Kenney’s classmates all gone from city
Fiola said in this effort to go beyond “anecdotal stories” while bringing in “more than 20 stakeholders” to this process for the past year and a half, within this diverse group “everybody felt the effects of a changing housing community.”

The PCC reported in-depth interviews with 17 of those stakeholders.

City Planner Bill Kenney, who’s lived and had his law practice in the city, and also chairs the Redevelopment Authority, said afterwards, “There is not a single person I went to school with who lives in the city. They’re all gone.”

As announced months ago, this report is aimed at documenting information for “an ongoing public discussion” of housing conditions and related policies. Its larger purpose is to give information toward “the development of a new housing policy” for the city.

Mayor Jasiel Correia II, who attended one of the stakeholder meetings and whose staff and department heads attended the bulk of them, said in a brief interview, “This is very important to me.”

He vowed improvements would be in place by June 17, when a meeting date has already been set for the administration to meet with Fiola and her stakeholders group to update goals and accomplishments.

A look at Fact 3 speaks to the age and condition of the city’s housing stock and recommends Fall River establish a “Neighborhood Task Force” like neighboring Gateway City New Bedford did.

The PCC report said this city’s housing stock was built for renters who primarily live in older housing. In this city’s case, 73 percent of its rental units are at least 75 years old.

“Older rental units are more prone to structural deficiencies. Budgetary constraints and staff capacity prevent inspectional services … and many units have not been inspected for years,” Fact 3 concludes.

Stakeholder Ron Rusin, a real estate owner who returned four years ago to the city he’s lived in most of his life, said he owns approximately 100 rental units. Of city inspections, he said, “It’s not been done once inside my properties.”

One recommendation, under Fact 4, reported $273,800 in revenue was generated from registered abandoned properties in 2015. The monies went into the city general fund.

Create Neighborhood Task Force
The recommendation is to earmark such funds to boost housing inspectional service personnel, technology and inspections under a newly created Neighborhood Task Force.

Five recommendations for the NTF, placed under the city legal department, would include: identifying and registering abandoned buildings and enforcement of zoning, health/sanitation and exterior/interior building code violations.

The NTF would enforce the laws in “the most troubled neighborhoods” to bring non-owner- occupied and owner-occupied properties into legal compliance, the recommendations state.

The report says Fall River “recently engaged with the New Bedford NTF to learn how to develop a similar program.”

Correia listed that as one of the examples that “we’re on this big time” to make housing policy changes.

Several stakeholders said they were uncertain who wrote the recommendations that Fiola did not specify at the public session at Government Center

“That’s a good question,” said Rob Mellion, president/CEO of the Fall River Area Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Not specifying which ones, he added, “I personally felt uncomfortable with some of the recommendations.”

Mellion, who’s headed the chamber for eight years, said his biggest hope is “we’re able to move forward on ideas and initiatives that in the past have been impeded.”

He called the PCC report “accurate” and “very helpful.”

Viveiros, who as a city councilor worked toward limiting subsidized housing, including advocacy to the state to demolish Watuppa Heights, said she attended most of the meetings leading to the finalized report.

Like other stakeholders interviewed Viveiros said she did not participate in writing the recommendations. She said Michael Goodman, the PCC’s executive director, was “receptive” to feedback, challenges and “alternative opinions” at the meetings.

Nick Christ, president/CEO of Bay Coast Bank, who vowed at the outset to wholly fund this nearly $50,000 research study if others didn’t come forward – he maintained they did – said their bottom line is: “We want to improve the qualify of life for every citizen in Fall River … I’m hoping,” Christ said, “in June we’ll see a significant change in the direction of where our housing policy is going.”