Rowan Saucier, a University of Maine at Augusta architecture student from Fairfield, created the design used in a Augusta Housing Authority proposal to build senior rental housing in Augusta. Rowan Saucier image

AUGUSTA — An Augusta Housing Authority proposal inspired by the work of University of Maine at Augusta architecture students could bring as many as 25 energy efficient — and affordable — rental homes for people age 55 and older to the city.

Proponents say the proposal to build the homes on what are now athletic fields behind the former Hodgkins middle school could serve as a model for similar affordable housing projects across the state.

The idea sprung from housing officials working with UMA architecture students on a project in which students designed small, affordable, highly energy-efficient rental homes. Amanda Olson, executive director of Augusta Housing Authority, said that served as the inspiration to build a neighborhood of between 20 and 25 likely one-bedroom homes behind Hodgkins School Apartments. The housing authority converted that former school into apartments for people age 55 and older in 2016.

“The end result was mind-blowing, I’m so incredibly impressed by the students,” Olson said of the student designs. “We walked away with some things that are completely realistic, feasible, and doable. And inspiration for us, as a community, to move forward and really have an opportunity to be a leader in affordable housing.”

The project would be built on what is now a soccer and baseball field behind the former school. Officials said the soccer field is rarely used anymore for organized activities, while one of the two baseball fields on the site would be preserved.

The site is also currently crossed by nature and cross country running trails, but Olson said those could be preserved and their use protected by an easement across the housing site.

“We look forward to working with Amanda on this project, there are a few things we want to look at but they are very flexible,” said Community Services Director Leif Dahlin, who oversees recreational activities and sites in the city. “We use it very little for organized team sports any longer. The cross country trail I do want to take a look at with Amanda and I’m glad to hear there is still some flexibility there.

“I want to fix that real good, so it’s a benefit to the community,” he added. “Otherwise we support this project. So we will make this work very nicely.”

Several city councilors, after Olson presented the project to them recently, expressed great support for it and hope that it could help address an ongoing housing shortage.

“The conceptual drawings, the use of the space, the need for housing in Augusta, I don’t see how this could not be a successful program, I love it,” said Ward 3 Councilor Mike Michaud. “First and foremost you’re addressing a housing issue. You’re taking care of people 55 and up. So I hope this project moves forward. Certainly, Augusta Housing will have my 100% endorsement.”

Like similar housing developments in Augusta, including Hodgkins School Apartments, the Cony flatiron building,the Inn at City Hall, and Maple Street Apartments, the project could be funded with low-income housing tax credits, if it wins a competitive process to access those funds.

Olson said she would seek a tax increment financing deal from the city, and a favorable lease agreement for the city-owned land, both of which she said are needed to make the project financially feasible and competitive. The city leases the Cony flatiron building, and the former Hodgkins school building, to their developers for a token payment of $1 a year.

Olson said the Maple Street Apartments and Hodgkins School apartments have long waiting lists to get in.

UMA students, according to Professor Eric Stark, coordinator of UMA’s architecture program, were tasked with three main goals: To build houses that would work on the site; use passive design to maximize their energy efficiency by capturing solar energy; and designing 600-square-foot houses. Students incorporated high-efficiency construction methods and materials, resulting in “net zero” and even “net plus” structures, meaning the housing produces as much energy as it uses, or even more. The students worked with Olson as well as Maine Housing Authority officials.

UMA architecture students have also been involved in designing other proposed public projects and concepts, such as a potential new Augusta Teen Center.

“One of the things we’re very interested in is this idea of community partnering,” Stark said. “It shows (students) what good architecture can do. And, more importantly, shows that they have a responsibility to, honestly, groups and organizations that don’t always feel they deserve good design. Good design doesn’t have to be expensive. It can be, certainly. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s not necessarily about more. It’s about spending better.”

Rowan Saucier of Fairfield, the student whose design was used in the project proposal, said the intention of her design was to use “natural light to create feelings of embracement.”

“I decided to focus on the economics of the units,” she said, “investigating how maximizing natural daylight can reduce a home’s electric bill.”

Design elements contributing to her proposal’s sustainability include concrete slab floors that would collect heat energy and release that during the cooler evenings, and south-facing facades to allow natural light to enter during the day without being shaded by other units, which are passive solar heating methods.

“To be able to work with groups such as Augusta Housing Authority and Maine State Housing Authority who are excited to see what we students have to offer and are so passionate about what they do really makes a difference when designing,” Saucier said. “They, along with Professor Eric Stark, truly made me feel that my work can help change someone’s life.”

The circular layout of the proposed new homes would surround a community center building, which Olson said could be used for neighborhood gatherings of residents.

Rents would be based on federal low-income housing rates, which Olson said are set annually by the state housing authority for all tax credit projects. Current Kennebec County rates are $849 a month for a one-bedroom. Renters would have to be under maximum income limits to qualify to live there, which is currently a little less than $40,000 a year.

Olson said they’ll seek tax increment financing and lease agreements with the city and Planning Board approval, and apply for funding this summer.  If it is funded, construction could start in spring of 2022 and be complete in the summer of 2023.

Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins said he was very impressed with students’ proposals. But he expressed concern the chosen development proposal is similar to the cluster housing approach of building new houses centered around shared space, which was used in the Cony Village development on Cony Road.

“I look at the project that was done on Cony Road that is still struggling to build out and it has been there about 15 years now,” he said, “so I’m not quite sure, people just haven’t seemed to be attracted to that kind of thing, so I’m not sure they’d be drawn to this.”

City Manager William Bridgeo responded that an important distinction is the Cony Road homes are owned, while the new development would be rental housing.

“We’re talking about new senior rental units, modern, very convenient, a private driveway, personal space, it’s a different product for a different market,” Bridgeo said. “If they were going to sell them, I’d have the same concerns you do. Where it’s going to be this, versus an apartment on the third floor of a box, I think this is very attractive.”

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