A vacant downtown lot in Lynn could become the site of housing for local veterans facing economic difficulties.
Lynn’s housing authority is pursuing a plan to develop 22 rental apartments on the approximately 1-acre site at the corner of Essex and High streets. Ten of the units would be for individual homeless veterans and 12 for veterans and their families who are homeless or low income.
The authority, formally known as the Lynn Housing Authority and Neighborhood Development, is working with the city’s veterans’ services director, Michael Sweeney, on the initiative.
Norman Cole, the authority’s director of planning and development, said there has been a growing need for housing for low-income veterans here and elsewhere in the country.
“The federal government has a mandate to eliminate all veteran homelessness. It’s one of the major initiatives of the federal government as well as the state,’’ he said.
“We think [our project is] a little bit unique because we are not just talking about homeless individual veterans but veteran families,’’ he added.
Cole said that in addition to providing low-cost housing opportunities for veterans, the proposed development “really completes the revitalization of that area.’’
He said the property eyed for the housing, 472 Essex St., is near to High Rock Park, which the city has been restoring over the past decade; the new Girls Inc. headquarters, located in a restored school building; and the Cobbett Hill Apartments, a private affordable housing development in another restored school building.
The City Council’s Veterans, Youth, and Elderly Committee on Jan. 24 voted 5-0 to offer its informal support for the project. Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy has also expressed support, according to Cole.
“It’s something that is still in its infancy stages, but you want to make sure it’s something the city is supportive of’’ before proceeding further, Cole said.
With that backing in hand, he said the authority is trying to firm up cost figures for the project, currently estimated at $4 million to $5 million. He said it will then begin exploring public and private funding sources.
Cole said the housing authority does not currently manage any veteran-specific housing, although the tenant population in its properties includes many veterans. The authority does subsidize the rents of about 32 veterans and chronically homeless individuals who live in a rooming house at 33 High St., behind the proposed development site. There is also a private program on Essex Street that provides housing for veterans with psychiatric disabilities.
Sweeney said the need for more veterans’ housing is already pressing and will only grow, citing the large number of veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and the still troubled economy.
“The unemployment rate for [recent] veterans is significantly higher than for the overall population. So there is a real crisis there,’’ he said, noting that in addition to the younger veterans, there are Vietnam-era veterans facing hard times.
“In my office, we see people all the time that, while maybe not meeting the classic definition of homeless, are sleeping on couches and trying to get by. They can’t catch a break,’’ Sweeney said.
The unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans was 9.1 percent in January, down from 13.3 percent in December, according to the Army Times. The overall unemployment rate for veterans was 7.5 percent in January. The national rate was 8.3 percent.
Sweeney said many of the veterans - notably women - have families, so there is a specific need to address their housing needs.
The proposed development site was used by the city as a community garden before it was sold about eight years ago, according to Cole.
For the project to go forward, the authority would need to secure use of the land through a lease or purchase of the property from the owner, who is also the owner of the 33 High St. rooming house. If it gets built, Cole said the housing would be managed by either the authority or a nonprofit partner.
The housing, as proposed, would consist of nine single units and 12 two- to three-bedroom apartments. Rents would be kept at affordable rates, at least partially through subsidies, Cole said. In addition to the low-cost housing, the future veteran tenants in the building would be provided with support services
If the funding can be secured by then, Cole said, the authority hopes to break ground on the project in 18 months. Construction would take about a year.