AUGUSTA — The vacant former Hodgkins Middle School could be converted to housing for low-income senior citizens.
The Augusta Housing Authority and developer Kevin Bunker, who has experience converting old schools into housing, hope to secure a long-term lease from the city to turn the former middle school into senior housing.
The quasi-municipal housing authority would create a for-profit subsidiary, according to City Manager William Bridgeo, to allow it to seek federal and state historic preservation tax credits. It would also need to secure low-income housing tax credits from Maine State Housing Authority to help pay for the project.
Bridgeo said the lease charge from the city probably would be nominal and the project probably would need a tax increment financing deal from the city to help fund improvements to the old school.
He said the benefits to the city could include the reuse of a public building that is in significant disrepair, including the presence of asbestos and mold. It would create new affordable housing for the elderly in an already residential neighborhood and help fulfill city officials’ goal of working more closely with the housing authority to improve opportunities for people of all incomes.
“It will be a challenge to convert it,” Bridgeo said. “It could be a great initial project for (the Augusta Housing Authority) to tackle. My hat’s off to the Augusta Housing Authority for aligning themselves with Kevin. I think it will probably take a strong effort of all parties involved to pull this off.”
Bunker, of Developers Collaborative of Portland, converted the former Gilman Street School, once Waterville’s high school, into Gilman Place, a 35-unit apartment building that opened in 2011. Now the collaborative is converting the former Nathan Clifford School in Portland into 22 rental housing units.
Bridgeo, who met with Amanda Bartlett, the housing authority’s executive director, and Bunker on Tuesday, said they’re looking at putting 34 to 41 apartments in the building.
Bartlett could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
She previously has said there is a shortage of affordable, safe housing in the city — not just for senior citizens, but for all ages. She cited statistics showing 60 percent of renters in Augusta are unable to afford the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment, with utilities included, of $744 a month. In February, there were 675 people on Augusta Housing Authority’s waiting list for federally funded Section 8 housing assistance vouchers.
Maine’s median age of 43.5 years is the highest in the United States; and its proportion of people 65 and older, at 17 percent, is second only to Florida’s.
Hodgkins, tucked into a residential neighborhood on Malta Street, just off Cony Street, closed as a school at the end of the 2009 school year in a cost-cutting move. Students in grades seven and eight now attend classes at Cony High School. The School Department turned the building over to the city after it closed as a school.
Ever since then, the brick building has stood, unheated, with windows boarded up. It’s used for seasonal storage of picnic tables, hockey rink boards and other city-owned equipment.
“It’d be great to see it reused,” said Bob LaBreck, the city’s facilities manager. “I think it’s a great idea.”
LaBreck said the roof has several leaks and acknowledged providing accessibility for people with disabilities has been a challenge, but he said that overall, the building is in decent shape and was built in an era when buildings were made to last.
The 30,575-square-foot building, built in 1958, has a large parking lot and a gymnasium. Bridgeo said the developer expressed interest in the entire building and enough land to provide parking and a buffer between it and neighbors but probably would not use the entire 20-acre property.
The interior of the old school is stripped of its lockers, which were reused at Capital Area Technical Center, but it still contains many remnants of its school days, including desks, chairs, a large pile of books in the former principal’s office, and murals on the walls including multiple paintings of huskies, the school mascot. A science classroom still has a sign above its door which states “Room 13, Mrs. Chouinard,” and the room’s closet still contains some old glass bottles. A large green “H” is tiled into the floor just inside the locked entrance to the old school.
LaBreck said the building still has a working alarm, is still visited by city staff bringing or removing equipment for storage there regularly, and hasn’t been entered by vandals.
City councilors, in an order up for a vote Thursday, will be asked to authorize Bridgeo to negotiate an agreement to lease Hodgkins for redevelopment, and bring the agreement back to councilors for review and, potentially, their approval.
Bridgeo noted the proposal is similar to two senior-citizen housing projects the city has developed with Cynthia Milliken Taylor, of Housing Initiatives of New England. The Inn at City Hall opened in 2001 and the former Cony High School flatiron building is also scheduled to be turned in to senior housing.
Bartlett, who became the Augusta Housing Authority’s new executive director in December, has said she wants to expand the authority’s role in providing affording housing in the area.
Keith Edwards — 621-5647 firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @kedwardskj