The city of Augusta owns a former school building that has been vacant for five years. The city also has a demonstrated and growing need for affordable senior housing.
A plan to repurpose the former Hodgkins Middle School would solve both those issues. The City Council, which has been supportive of the plan by the Augusta Housing Authority, should approve the proposal tonight so that the authority can move forward with meeting state financing deadlines for this year.
Under the proposal, the former school would be leased to the housing authority for 90 years at a rate of $1 per year. Working with a developer experienced in converting former schools, the authority would create 34 to 41 apartments aimed at low-income seniors.
The housing is needed. According to the housing authority, 60 percent of Augusta renters are unable to afford the average rent in the city. A study done last year also showed that Augusta will need additional rental units to accommodate 192 more senior renters by 2018.
In addition, the project will provide a good use for the former school, which was shuttered in 2009 and has been vacant and unheated since. The building now has a number of issues, which would become the housing authority’s problem under the terms of the lease.
“They get it as is, where is, and they rehabilitate it all,” Ralph St. Pierre, assistant city manager and finance director, said this week.
It would be preferable that the building go to a private developer so that the resulting development is added to the city tax rolls. But the building, because of its residential location, has limited options for development, and after five years empty affordable housing through the authority, with the availability of tax credits, is likely its best possible future.
The project follows a pattern developing here in Maine and across the country. As cities close down schools to save money, the aging buildings — typically in residential areas and limited in what can be done with them — have been successfully turned into affordable housing, often for seniors. The buildings that once served a community’s youngest members are now helping its oldest.
Kevin Bunker, the developer who will work with the authority on the project, has done exactly that, both at the former Gilman Street School in Waterville and now at the former Nathan Clifford School in Portland.
This project will help Augusta meet a clear goal, and with experienced people on hand it has a high likelihood for success. This is a good deal for Augusta.