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Bellingham Housing Program Offers Grants to Assist Homeowners

Mar 30, 2020 06:00AM ● By Pamela Johnson
MUNICIPAL SPOTLIGHT written by KEN HAMWEY, Contributing Writer

The town of Bellingham received a grant of $800,000 from the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) (awarded late last year) to complete two projects.

The first is to continue the Bellingham Housing Rehabilitation Program (BHRP). The program is designed to assist eligible Bellingham homeowners to make home repairs of up to $35,000 per unit and to correct substandard living conditions and code violations.

“The program provides funding and technical assistance to low- and moderate-income homeowners,” said Paula Stuart, the program manager. “Funds are provided as a zero interest, no-payment, deferred loan that’s forgiven after 15 years. Contractors are pre-screened and supervised during construction by program staff.”

The second initiative deals with accessibility improvements to sidewalks along North Main Street, from Hartford Avenue to Mendon Street at Bellingham center. (See photo on next page.)

“The goal is to better serve disabled and wheelchair-bound residents of the town,” Stuart said. “This will address architectural barriers at 46 locations along North Main Street by installing 26 new ADA– (Americans with Disabilities Act)–compliant sidewalk ramps where none exist, upgrading eight substandard ramps and addressing other sidewalk conditions (broken concrete) that create barriers at another 12 locations. Work on this project is expected to begin during late spring and continue this summer.”

The BHRP program, started in Bellingham in 1998, typically deals with home repairs for failed heating, septic problems, and leaking roofs.  Plumbing and electrical repairs, accessibility modifications, energy-efficiency upgrades, windows, stairs, or siding are also often addressed. Stuart defines BHRP’s role as “a way to help low- and moderate-income homeowners to make repairs to the homes they could otherwise not afford.”

Grant applications are submitted to the state in March.  Awards are made in July or August, and funds usually become available by October. To qualify for assistance, homeowners must meet income eligibility requirements, be current on municipal taxes and fees and be in good standing on their mortgages. Income limits are based on household size.  For example, for a family of four to be eligible, their maximum annual income must be no more than $81,100.
The $800,000 grant will provide $330,000 for housing loans and $290,000 for sidewalk upgrades. The remaining $180,000 will be spent on administrative costs that include maintaining the BRHRP office, housing inspections, testing, and tenant relocation, if necessary.

“The prior grant, awarded in 2017, enabled the program to rehab 20 housing units,” Stuart said. “We anticipate the 2019 grant will upgrade 10-15 households, a lesser amount because of funding that is allocated for the sidewalks on North Main Street. It’s my hope to get more Bellingham homeowners to apply for improvements.”

Applications can be obtained at the Bellingham Community Development Office (old Town Hall) at 2 Mechanic Street. Applications can also be mailed or emailed to homeowners who call 508-657-2891. Stuart indicated that ninety percent of the homes in Bellingham that undergo repair are single-family dwellings and that a variety of people apply for help. Stuart says applicants include singles, seniors, the disabled and couples with young children.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides these Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) directly to larger cities, but 40 percent of the funds allocated for this state go to the Department of Housing & Community Development, which distributes them among smaller communities based upon a competitive application process. Bellingham has succeeded in obtaining grants through this program continuously since 2010.

Stuart, who’s worked in housing for 30 years, previously served as Housing Director in Somerville and Lawrence. She emphasizes that BHRP is not a welfare program. “It’s a community development program,” she said. “Besides keeping residents safely in their homes, it helps to improve neighborhoods. If there’s a home that’s an eyesore in a specific neighborhood and we repair it, then it’s likely other neighbors will decide to invest in their homes. Everyone benefits and property values increase.”

Once a homeowner’s eligibility is approved, specialists will inspect the property to determine the needed repairs. Work specifications are prepared, reviewed and approved. The project goes out to bid to qualified contractors and is awarded to the lowest responsible bidder. The owner, contractor and the town then sign contract documents.

Some residents may need to be temporarily relocated during construction involving lead paint or asbestos mitigation. “This is usually for a week or two and most homeowners stay with family members,” Stuart noted. “The program can pay relocation costs for tenants or homeowners who do not have nearby family and cannot afford the cost. Construction is usually completed within 60 days, excluding extreme weather or situations beyond one’s control (like a labor strike delaying materials).”

Throughout construction a Housing Rehabilitation Specialist regularly inspects the progress and quality of the work performed. “At the end of the project, homeowners complete an evaluation sheet that informs us about their experience with the program,” Stuart said. “Their responses help us to improve the program.”

Stuart reports to Town Administrator Denis Fraine, who has overall responsibility for the grant.  He signs the assistance agreements and approves any needed grant extensions.
 “For the last decade, the program has exceeded its goals,” Stuart noted. “I get great satisfaction helping people through this program.”




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