WATERVILLE — Two and a half years after the Waterville Community Land Trust (WCLT) bought its first property at 181 Water St. — and nearly seven months since the renovated house was put on the market — the nonprofit has finally found a suitable homeowner to turn the keys over to. Anna Holdener moved in on July 27 and has already made the place home with her two cats, Lily and Oscar.

One of the obstacles to finding the right candidate for the Water Street house has been the nature of the land trust itself.

“The fact that we own the land is very different for homeowners,” Meg Bernier Boyd, executive director of WCLT, said. “But it’s also a safety net for them.”

Noting understandable exceptions such as installing a swimming pool, Holdener said, “I’ve talked to (Bernier Boyd) about looking to do this and this with the yard, and I pretty much have free rein. The fact that I’m leasing my land is fine with me.”

Holdener has been involved with the South End community where the house is located for several years already, working as a youth specialist at the South End Teen Center and as a member of its neighborhood association even before she purchased the Water Street property. Her neighbors have welcomed her with open arms.

“Doing my yard work, I’ve had five or six people offer to lend or bring over a chainsaw even, and I’ve only lived here for two months,” she said. “There really is that sense of community and just neighborhood pride, which you don’t see really often anywhere, truthfully.”

The trust itself offers homeowners support with home maintenance questions and needs. Additionally, if a pipe breaks in the yard — not under the house — the trust is responsible for repairs instead of the homeowner.

WCLT aims to provide affordable housing to people with low to moderate incomes, while improving neighborhoods and restoring their historic nature. With the help of grants and donations, the organization purchases properties throughout the city, renovates the houses or razes and rebuilds on the land and then accepts applications from individuals or single families who meet the income qualifications to live there. After the selected homeowner purchases the house from WCLT, they enter a 99-year lease with the trust, which retains ownership over the land. In December 2017, the land trust had listed the home for $54,800.

Anna Holdener on Monday said she loves her new home on Water Street in Waterville that she purchased through the Waterville Community Land Trust. Staff photo by David Leaming

While land trust houses are owned by the buyer and can be inherited by his or her family members, the trust’s stake in the land requires that the nonprofit be involved in any sale of the house so that it can ensure future owners meet the group’s affordable housing criteria. Homeowners such as Holdener pay all property taxes. They also pay a $25 monthly fee to the land trust that ensures continued support of the community.

Bernier Boyd said that she received a lot of interest in the 181 Water St. property from people whose incomes made them overqualified.

“The whole idea is to give somebody a leg up,” she noted. “It’s not just to sell a house and make a profit.”

On the other hand, several other candidates had insufficient credit. This was a tougher roadblock for the trust, as poor credit is often a function of the same lower income levels that would make a person eligible for the trust’s housing.

“Even though our house is quite inexpensive, you still have to look at the hurdles of the bank,” Bernier Boyd said. “We don’t hold the mortgage.”

She noted that if the trust had more homes to offer, it could provide more flexibility to enable people to boost their credit over time. While this was not an option for their first property, Bernier Boyd noted that the trust has reached out to banks to figure out the best way to address this issue moving forward.

Ultimately, though it took a long time to secure Holdener, Bernier Boyd could not be happier that she is the trust’s first homeowner. WCLT had been hoping she would apply for over a year.

“Anna is a great volunteer and a great worker with the Teen Center and the South End Neighborhood Association,” she said. “When I found out she was interested in the house, I nearly jumped out of my seat. I was so excited because she’s the example of exactly the kind of person you want to have this opportunity.”

Founders of the trust set their eyes on Waterville’s South End for their first project because of its proximity to downtown and to revitalize the Franco-American area once populated by migrant mill workers from Canada.

“It’s a very historic part of the city, and one that I think, with the downtown being developed the way it’s being developed, has so much potential — and people are seeing it,” Bernier Boyd said. “Houses are selling down there, not just ours … but we still have a lot of work to do to secure parts of this neighborhood and keep it a sustainable, walkable, family-generational neighborhood.”

Bernier Boyd has a personal stake in the area, being a lifelong Waterville resident of French descent herself. While she was a senior at Colby College, Bernier Boyd wrote a 103-page senior thesis on the Franco-American population’s legacy in Waterville, which has become a part of the city’s historical archive.

Following the decline of the mills and the Great Depression, the South End experienced a prolonged period of poverty and crime, leading it to develop a bad reputation. But Holdener said that when she started to work in the community, “the reputation and the image didn’t match up.”

Anna Holdener stands ready for the changes in the seasons with a rake and a shovel in front of her new home on Water Street in Waterville recently. Contributed photo

“I knew of more drug busts and crime where I was living before than here,” she said. “I was perfectly comfortable with the neighborhood.”

WCLT had to sell the first house in order to move on to their next focus, but it already has a new project in the pipeline. The trust owns 2 acres at 226-228 Water St. and another parcel of land at 232 Water St. Right now, the nonprofit is in the early phases of planning a new home at 226 Water St. “We are looking to do a sustainable small house on 226 that will actually look like the neighborhood,” Bernier Boyd said. “We want architecturally to keep the history of the neighborhood intact. That’s really critical to us.”

The house is expected to be less than 1,000 square feet and designed to accommodate one or two adults as well as a child or guest in a second bedroom or loft. Because the property abuts the Kennebec River, WCLT hopes to build a porch on the back of the house for “outdoor living.” The organization is applying for grants to finance solar panels for the house.

Bernier Boyd received an unexpected amount of interest in the 181 Water St. property from elderly people and noted that this new house “might be sustainable for an older person who would be a good neighbor.”

On the 232 Water St. property, WCLT is continuing efforts to transform the land into a small park that will overlook the river.

“We’re talking about things from gardens for the bees, birds and everything else, to places for people to sit and possibly places for fly fishing and maybe have fly fishing lessons,” Bernier Boyd said.

She hopes that the natural elements of the area will provide schoolchildren and college students with the ability to study the river basin and flood plain.

“This is right in the city, it’s not outside,” Bernier Boyd emphasized. “It’s very different, and I hope … that we can have some aspects that are educational, too. Not just athletic for people running through and taking walks, but something that’s educational.”

Bernier Boyd did not have a projected completion date for either of these upcoming projects.

Nearby in the South End, Habitat for Humanity is building a new house at 11 Clark St. The city of Waterville had given the original house to the land trust, but the trust deemed it too deteriorated to use and tore it down.

Bernier Boyd noted that South End residents — a mix of young families, older adults and a still strong group of French descendants — have been largely receptive to the changes WCLT has ushered into their neighborhood. However, she mentioned that there has been some push back.

“It changes the dynamic,” Bernier Boyd acknowledged. “But people are always afraid of change in your neighborhood. If they tried to do my neighborhood, people would probably be like, ‘Wait a minute.’ I think that’s a normal reaction. And then after a while, 20 years from now, people will say, ‘Well, it was always this way.'”

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

@megrobbins

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