The developers of a controversial proposal to build affordable housing for formerly homeless people in Newton say they will move forward with their plan, despite an announcement from Mayor Setti Warren last week saying he would not approve funding for the project.
“We don’t give up easily,” said Jennifer Van Campen, executive director of Metro West Collaborative Development. The private, nonprofit organization has proposed a partnership with Boston’s Pine Street Inn to turn a historic former firehouse on Beacon Street in Newton’s Waban section into apartments for nine chronically homeless people, and a residential staff member.
“Our plan is to carry on,” she said. Metro West has a purchase and sale agreement with the owners of the firehouse, the nonprofit Hospice of the Good Shepherd, and Van Campen said she still expects the sale to close as scheduled on Aug. 12.
“That is still our desire, absolutely,” she said.
The proposed housing project, called Engine 6, has raised the hackles of many village residents, who say the facility’s tenants could be dangerous and disruptive. The apartments would be open to people who have a disabling condition, and who have either been continuously homeless for a year or more or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years, officials said.
The proposal’s initial eligibility criteria would have allowed level one sex offenders into the apartments, but after an outcry from neighbors, Pine Street announced that no one with a sexual offense on their record would be eligible.
The work to convert the building into apartments is projected to cost about $3.1 million; developers had requested nearly $1.4 million in federal funds managed by Newton, and the Newton Housing Partnership and the city’s Planning and Development Board had voted to grant the money. Their recommendation was on track to be forwarded to Warren after a 30-day public comment period, set to end Tuesday.
However, Warren weighed in a week before the deadline.
“There are several reasons why I cannot support the allocation of federal funding for the proposal at this time,” Warren said in a statement last Tuesday. “For an affordable-housing project to move forward anywhere in the city, I believe it is essential that we first allow for an appropriate period of time for our residents to be heard.”
In an interview, Warren said he made the decision because 30 days is simply not enough time for people in the community to discuss the proposal.
He said the city is committed to hosting workshops and educational forums this fall to discuss affordable housing, covering both existing projects and possible future projects.
Warren said he would be open to considering the Engine 6 proposal again at a later date.
Van Campen said she understands Warren’s desire for more time, and is looking forward to talking with him. She said she is still hoping that he will decide to grant the funds, but if he does not, Metro West will seek a bridge loan to complete the purchase and sale.
“The plan all along had been to look in as many places as possible” for funding, she said. “We will certainly continue to work with the City of Newton planning staff and the mayor to try to obtain those funds.”
Timothy Boon, CEO of Hospice of the Good Shepherd, said Thursday that his nonprofit still plans on closing the sale with Metro West on time.
“They have not asked us to change anything,” he said. “Unless and until they call us and say something different, we are still obliged to close the 12th of August.”
On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Pine Street expressed disappointment over the mayor’s decision. “Without the support of the City of Newton, we are unable to move forward on this project,” Barbara Trevisan announced in a statement.
On Thursday, however, Trevisan said that while the Pine Street organization stands by its earlier position, “we can’t predict the future, and if things should change with funding, we would be happy to work with Metro West and the City of Newton. We are definitely leaving the door open.”
If Metro West can line up funding, whether through the city or through some other source, public or private, Van Campen said, it would still have to apply for a comprehensive permit from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals.
While some in Waban had been enraged by the proposal, others were supportive of Engine 6, and said they were upset with the mayor’s decision.
“We were very disappointed, extremely disappointed he cut the democratic process short,” said Elizabeth Baum, who lives on Metacomet Road. “He capitulated to the loudest and most aggressive groups.”
On Tuesday night, after the mayor’s announcement, Baum said, she held a meeting with about 20 Engine 6 supporters to discuss how to move forward. They formed the Engine 6 Committee and decided to try to set up a meeting with Warren, to encourage other supporters to write letters to local news media, and to try to get education about homelessness and mental illness implemented in local schools. She said the group is compiling a list of supporters, which had 50 or 60 names on it last week.
“The first step was to let the mayor know that shutting this period down was really a shame,” she said, “especially because . . . he referenced that there was not enough time to have a community dialogue about this, and meanwhile, he shut the community dialogue down.” A spokesman for Warren said the mayor would be happy to meet with supporters, and a date would be scheduled.
Alderwoman Deborah Crossley, who moderated meetings about Engine 6 and was working to educate residents about the proposal, said she also was unhappy with the mayor’s decision.
“I urged him not to do this, because, to me, we had a public process that we had put in place, that everybody was gearing up to participate in,” she said.
While the meetings had been contentious, she said, people were beginning to work through the information, ask questions, and understand.
“I’m very disappointed. I worked very hard on this,” she said. “To be told, close to the time when the event is scheduled, that ‘everything’s off, sorry,’ in order to stop a difficult conversation, makes no sense to me.”