FITCHBURG — Addressing the area’s most pressing housing needs was at the forefront of a Fitchburg Housing Authority meeting that took place in early November with the group welcoming a special guest.
State Housing Secretary Ed Augustus paid a visit to the city on Nov. 2 for the meeting at Wallace Tower, where officials discussed various affordable and public housing initiatives, plans to increase ADA housing, and ways to address the city’s immediate homeless shelter needs.
During the meeting, Augustus made sure to reassure city officials that the state is working hard in addressing housing needs.
“You have a very effective team representing you in Boston,” Augustus said when he spoke towards the end of the meeting. He also thanked state Legislators and others in the group for their efforts in support of public housing and their “strategy for bringing back the vitality.”
Among those that attended included Mayor Stephen DiNatale, state Sen. John Cronin, state Rep. Michael Kushmerek, FHA staff and board members, representatives from the school district, and members of the community.
FHA Executive Director Doug Bushman Bushman spoke about the FHA’s “community approach to public housing” and how meeting the needs of city residents is a bipartisan effort.
“Public housing is a liberal and conservative program,” he said. “We are trying to help people live good lives with secure housing.”
He went on to say that Massachusetts “is one of the few states in the country” that has state-funded public housing and that they are grateful for that.
“It is really a phenomenal program, and we should be proud of our public housing,” Bushman said.
He praised Augustus and his “great team” for making “critical investments” in public housing and talked about securing funding for public housing costs through Making Opportunity Count, the American Rescue Plan Act, and private donations.
“This community approach is not just a feel-good thing, it has paid itself off,” Bushman said of the multi-faceted collaborations that benefit city residents living in public housing. “We are their first line and sometimes their last line in getting assistance.”
He told those at the meeting about a recent gathering of public housing residents and how they shared a meal together that was provided by the FHA.
“This is their family. This is their community interaction,” Bushman said.
FHA Director of Maintenance & Facilities Bruce Budrick talked about how “maintenance will increase curb appeal” and said that the average age of the city public housing properties is 59 years, with some as old as the 1880s.
“Increased maintenance hours would be beneficial for all of us,” Budrick said. “Preventative maintenance is very important. It does extend the life of the properties.”
He said that they have substantially increased maintenance hours and noted that by doing, that they will be able to help public housing properties in the city “last longer.”
“We need more, especially as buildings and units get older,” Budrick said.
FHA Director of Resident & Community Services Marci Haneisen said they are proud to offer “aging in place communities” for seniors that include “access to services they need.”
“Our community believes in us and our potential,” she said.
FHA Deputy Director Andrew Skoog echoed her sentiments, saying that the goal of the FHA is to “serve the community.”
Bushman then spoke about the grant the FHA was awarded in 2019 to renovate units at the Green Acres Village public housing complex on Normandy Road
“We are targeting children and their guardians,” Bushman said of funneling funding towards families and areas with “the highest concentration of poverty,” such as Green Acres.
“The state has been great looking for more money and the executive office has been phenomenal.”
Bushman announced that the FHA has taken over a homeless shelter that closed down in March, what was long known as Our Father’s House, and are “looking to get it set up as a warming center and then a shelter.”
“We got word that people are living outside it,” he said of the Summer Street shelter. “It’s something that is critical.”
DiNatale praised Bushman and the FHA crew for all their hard work, saying that “there’s a lot going on in Fitchburg and the housing authority is at the front of those improvements.” In return Bushman thanked the mayor “for sticking your neck out for the housing authority” and the “phenomenal (FHA) board and staff.”
“It’s a team effort,” Bushman said.
Augustus was named the state’s first housing secretary in more than 30 years in May. He is a former state senator and during his tenure as a city manager in Worcester he helped to create thousands of new housing units at all income levels.
He talked about the Affordable Homes Bill, a housing bond bill that includes up to $3.4 billion in authorizations toward low-income housing, and how he has recommended increasing funding from the state for housing authorities across the Commonwealth, including Fitchburg. Augustus said that in order to properly fund and maintain public housing “we know we need a substantial infusion of cash to meet those needs.”
He said they have $15 million from the bill “set aside for accessibility for public housing” and spoke about climate change and how “we need to take seriously the impact” from it, mentioning funding that will go specifically “towards decreasing the carbon footprint in public housing.”
“There’s a lot of important stuff in this bill for public housing,” Augustus relayed.
He brought up the Fitchburg Arts Community project and praised the city and those involved in repurposing old buildings “and using them for additional housing” and said that “everyone deserves to live in dignity.”
“Shelters should be a temporary thing. People need a home,” Augustus articulated before adding that he is keeping his promise to visit all of the housing authorities in the state.
Kushmerek thanked Bushman and the FHA team, noting that what they provide “is second to none,” and longtime Canton Valley affordable housing complex resident Kathleen Deery stood up and said that since Bushman came on at the FHA in 2019 “everything has changed drastically for the better.”
“We weren’t taken care of very well,” Deery said of the time before Bushman was leading the FHA. “Since then, we’ve had great maintenance. They do so much with so little, I hope they’re supplemented in the future.”
She talked about all of the improvements that have been made at the affordable housing complex she has called home for eight years, including new windows and sidewalks, landscaping, ADA accessible units, and more, “the list goes on and on.”
“Above all, it’s safe,” she said. “Thank you Mr. Bushman for all your hard work.”