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Some Newton residents say city’s construction halt leaves them displaced from their homes

Adrian Hellman, his wife Penelope, and 6-year-old son Phillip haven't been able to live in their home since mid-February.  In the middle of their renovation project, the coronavirus pandemic arrived and also a halt on all non-essential construction in Newton.
Adrian Hellman, his wife Penelope, and 6-year-old son Phillip haven't been able to live in their home since mid-February. In the middle of their renovation project, the coronavirus pandemic arrived and also a halt on all non-essential construction in Newton.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Ever since fire ripped through their Newton home more than two years ago, Dolores Acevedo-Garcia and her family looked forward to finally returning to their neighborhood.

They were close: After nearly a year of construction, they planned to move into their new home on Pine Ridge Roadhome in Waban in May. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the city ordered a halt to the project earlier this month as part of efforts to slow the disease’s spread.

Acevedo-Garcia is among a group of Newton residents frustrated by how Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and other city officials are handling construction issues during the crisis. While small projects like theirs are stopped, they said, larger housing developments have been allowed to move ahead.

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“She wants to support housing development in Newton, obviously I am on her side,” Acevedo-Garcia said in an interview. “She may have good reasons, but those reasons are not being explained. The feeling is that she is favoring the larger developers.”

Fuller said the city must do all it can to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. As of Tuesday, 556 Newton residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 71 have died.

The mayor said she has halted all non-essential home construction to follow the “spirit” of Governor Charlie Baker’s stay-at-home advisory and limit the number of people who could be exposed.

“My job, right now, is a difficult one because I am strongly telling people to follow the stay-at-home advisory,” Fuller said in an interview Tuesday.

Baker’s advisory, issued late last month, does not specifically address home renovations and additions. It prioritizes multi-unit housing construction to combat the state’s housing supply shortage, but gives local officials latitude in determining which projects are essential. On Tuesday, Baker extended the advisory from May 4 to May 18.

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Scott Palmer, chief executive officer of the Builders and Remodelers Association of Greater Boston, said there has been no consistent practice among cities and towns about what kinds of construction is allowed.

“There is really nothing consistent across the board -- different towns are doing different things,” Palmer said in an interview.

In Belmont, officials are following Baker’s guidance and continue to allow construction activity, said Patrice Garvin, the town administrator.

“Workers are expected to follow social distancing practices,” Garvin said in an e-mail. “Our inspectional staff is coordinating with contractors requiring job sites to be clear of workers during inspections. Follow up comments are made via e-mail or phone.”

Needham is allowing construction to continue with appropriate social distancing measures if it began prior to Baker’s advisory, said Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, a town spokeswoman. Needham officials are not permitting new construction or demolitions at this time, she said.

Wellesley officials are also allowing renovation or addition projects that were permitted before Baker’s advisory was issued, said Meghan C. Jop, the town’s executive director.

“Generally yes, although we have asked residents to use their judgement on limiting projects at this time for their safety,” Jop said in an e-mail. “The contractors must meet the construction guidance requirements from the State and practice appropriate social distancing.”

In Newton, implementing Baker’s order has led to an impasse between the city and residents involved in substantial renovation and construction projects. Those residents argue that they are involved in housing work as well, and forcing them to remain in temporary rental housing only occupies more of Newton’s housing stock.

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They said the city’s halt on home projects is saddling them with unexpected costs for rent and other expenses. Making matters worse, city officials are unable to say when they can resume work to make their houses livable and allow them to return home.

“We’re just feeling frustrated by the process,” said Allison Myers, whose family’s Sterling Street home project has been stopped by the city. “There is so much construction going on, but you can’t have one guy working on a house.”

They argue that they have been following the rules, pulled the proper city permits, and are willing to work with contractors to limit the number of workers on job sites and other measures to defend against the disease.

So far, nearly every request for an exemption has been met with an adamant, albeit sympathetic, “No,” residents said.

Adrian Hellman said he recently talked with Fuller by phone, hoping she would allow his family more time for contractors to complete some work on their King Street home, and allow them to return home from an Airbnb rental in Belmont.

Fuller empathized, Hellman said, but wouldn’t budge.

“We had the call in the hopes to convince her to grant an exemption from the order, so we would be allowed back in,” Hellman said in an interview. “But the mayor was just black and white about it. She was closed to hearing anything from us.”

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Fuller, who announced April 1 that all but essential construction would stop in Newton, said she is committed to keeping that limit in place at least until May 18, when Baker’s advisory expires.

In Newton, a total of 45 projects are being allowed by the city’s inspectional services department to proceed, Fuller said. Work on some of those projects is being allowed only to make the sites secure, Fuller said, and not for construction to continue. Work on 27 accessory apartments is also being allowed to continue.

Two additional projects received exemptions so residents could move back into their homes, Fuller said: one to finish a floor for an elderly person with chronic kidney disease, and another to install grab bars for an elderly resident who has multiple sclerosis.

“I do understand how frustrating it is for so many to have what they consider to be important [projects] not be part of the essential list, or see other things they don’t view as essential be on the list,” Fuller said in an interview. “This is a really hard period for a lot of people.”

In an open letter to Fuller last week, several residents called on her to allow exemptions for home projects to continue.

“An open-ended delay will introduce major risks to active projects, put our beloved home in jeopardy, and create economic hardship,” the letter to Fuller said.

Acevedo-Garcia, whose home burned during a nor’easter in March 2018, said the disruption in construction has left her family unsure about their next steps. They had hoped to move back to Waban in May; now their landlord in Newton Highlands is demanding a 12-month lease, and seeks to increase their $4,500 monthly rent, she said.

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She’s living in the apartment with her husband and daughters, ages 22 and 21. Her older daughter has a developmental disability, and the stress of the situation is taking a toll on her, Acevedo-Garcia said.

The mayor should be working to help her constituents whose lives have been upended during the pandemic, she said.

“I understand we will not get a lot of sympathy in this crisis, but we are the tax base in this city, and we deserve respect,” Acevedo-Garcia said. “We are not being heard.”


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.