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Grants will help renovate long-vacant public housing

As a new executive director was selected for the Natick Housing Authority earlier this month, the state announced a program that would give the Natick authority nearly $255,000 to fix up 28 vacant units.

The number of units is the second highest to be renovated among the 33 agencies taking part in the program. Fitchburg, with 41 vacant units, has the highest number to refurbish, while Worcester, with 26 vacant units, was third. Fitchburg manages a total of 570 units, according to the state; Worcester, 562.

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Two other area communities, Milford and Waltham, are also included in the new program, which is providing $2.2 million  in grant money to help local housing agencies repair vacant units so they can be rented. Units eligible for renovations must have capital repair costs between $2,500 and $25,000, and the grants will be doled out as reimbursements after completion of the work, the state said.

But state officials made it clear that to receive the reimbursements, the local agencies would need to have tenants in the refurbished units by March 31. The state also announced that starting on Jan. 1, it will be withholding subsidies for public housing units that have been vacant for more than 60 days.

Under the program, Milford is in line to receive $13,000 to renovate one vacant unit, and Waltham has been promised nearly $40,000 for repairs to seven vacant units.

News of the grant program and revised policy came as the Natick Housing Authority announced Dover resident Anne Reitmayer has been offered the job as its executive director.

The Natick agency, which manages 422 units, has received criticism from its tenants and state officials in recent years, leading to the replacement of board members and its former director, Ed Santos.

The chairwoman of the authority’s board of directors, ­Gina Govoni, said even though the state funding comes with caveats, she thinks the grants and the new vacancy policy will help the town repair several units for reoccupancy.

“It’s a concern,” she said of the state’s new vacancy stipulations, “but I’d like to look at this as an opportunity and an incentive to get moving. I think it will help more than hinder.”

The authority’s acting executive director, Eileen Merritt, who took over for Santos a year ago, did not return calls seeking comment. Reitmayer said she did not want to comment with job negotiations not yet final.

Patricia Morrill, the Milford Housing Authority’s executive director, could not be reached for comment on the grant. 

Walter McGuire, the Waltham Housing Authority’s executive director, said about 30 of the authority’s 812 units are vacant, and seven have been empty for more than 60 days. 

“Our goal is not to get in that situation if at all avoidable, but without the resources, it happens,” he said. “All the units we got the funding for are the only ones vacant for more than 60 days. These are not units where they just need a cosmetic redo. There’s other substantial work that needs to be done.”

McGuire said he is confident that Waltham can fix and fill the seven units by the state’s March 31 deadline. 

“It happens,” he said of the 60-day-plus vacancies. “If you have something needing major work, and you can do two or three others in the same time to do that one, you pick the best choice for your area. But this [funding] helps us get units ready quicker, and get them to people who really need them.”

McGuire said he also is not worried about the state’s new policy on withholding funds for units empty for more than 60 days, since most of Waltham’s units have new tenants before the deadline.

“Most of our units are not vacant that long,” he said. He noted that municipalities can apply for extensions for some situations, such as repairing units with fire damage or conducting certain long-term renovation projects.

The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development also said that, as part of its new vacancy policy, it would provide support and technical assistance to housing authorities that face legitimate roadblocks to timely reoccupancy.

“Affordable public housing is in high demand across the state,” said Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary of the department, in an announcement on the new grants. “These additional funds dedicated to turnover costs will provide local housing authorities with new tools and funding to more quickly house seniors and families looking for affordable housing.”

The vacancy turnover initiative is one part of a broader strategy to reform the state’s public housing system, according to the department. Other reforms have included requiring local housing authorities to provide the state with the salaries of the five highest-paid staff members, as well as setting a maximum salary for executive directors.

There are about 1,734 vacant state-aided public housing units in Massachusetts, the majority of which are in various stages of turnover for reoccupancy. Less than 5 percent of the state-aided public housing units across the state are vacant, according to the department.

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com.
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