AUGUSTA — The Augusta City Council has unanimously approved a proposal to build a 34-unit affordable housing complex for tenants 55 or older, despite opposition by some neighbors who said they worried the project could take away green space and generate too much traffic.

While the Augusta Housing Authority project must still secure funding and go before the city Planning Board for review, construction could begin in June 2023 and the complex could be ready for tenants in June 2024.

Some city councilors said Thursday that construction of the project cannot come soon enough, and they hope other developers will propose to build housing to address what they said is a severe shortage of housing of all types in Augusta, but especially affordable housing for seniors.

“We’re only scratching the surface with these,” Mayor David Rollins said of the Malta Street project and a smaller Augusta Housing proposal to develop another eight units of housing for seniors at city-owned property at 597 Riverside Drive, which councilors also approved last week. “We need many projects, at many sites. I think it was a great compromise.”

After neighbors of the Hodgkins site complained the project, which was first proposed to cover a large existing soccer field and baseball field, took too much green space, the Augusta Housing Authority revised the project, going from the previously proposed cluster of small, stand-alone buildings that would cover the athletic fields to a single, 34-unit apartment building to be built near to the existing Hodgkins School Apartments.

The revision leaves the main athletic fields largely untouched but would be built on a much-smaller ball field at the end of the site.

Some neighbors, including Cornelia and Ted Brown, who live nearby on Quimby Street and turned in a “Save Hodgkins Field” petition signed by about 50 residents, said the revised project would still take too much green space and bring unwanted traffic and a concentration of senior housing in one location. They asked the city to postpone a vote on the project so it could explore sites where housing could be developed without creating negative impacts.

“I understand the drive to do this, but you’re not considering the inherent value of that beautiful field now and in the future,” Ted Brown said. “You can build your housing anywhere. All you need is to look at it in a common-sense sort of way.

“If I was going to build low-income elderly housing, I wouldn’t concentrate it in a ghetto, the way you have. I would look for places where there would be a benefit to the city by building something new. Taking Hodgkins is a net loss, it’s that simple.”

Amanda Olson, executive director of the Augusta Housing Authority, said studies show the Augusta area needs another 449 family housing units and 424 senior citizen housing units. She also said rental housing is in such short supply that rents have skyrocketed to the point they are not affordable to many working people and those receiving Section 8 housing vouchers.

Officials have said the local housing crisis is so bad people are living inside tents or cars, outside or filling homeless shelters.

Santa Havener, director of operations for Bridging the Gap, which runs a warming center and clothing and essentials pantries in Augusta, said working on the front lines in social services, she sees how the lack of affordable housing is driving some senior citizens into homelessness.

“Weekly, sometimes daily, I’m in contact with individuals, many of them are seniors, who are experiencing homelessness, sleeping outside in tents, cars, on sidewalks, on benches,” Havener wrote in a letter to city councilors. “The current housing crisis is turning into a public health and safety issue.”

Councilors thanked neighbors for expressing their concerns but said the need for affordable housing in Augusta is huge, the compromise preserves green space at the site and the city has numerous other recreational areas and much green space — about 1,200 acres, minus the 2.1 acres that would be leased to the housing authority.

“We have families sleeping in cars, sometimes out on the street,” Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Judkins said. “When I balance the green space, which we seem to have a lot of, to people being homeless, I’m going to use common sense and compassion. Tonight, I’m going to vote for humanity over convenience, and I’d vote to move this forward.”

As the city did with the housing authority project that converted the city-owned Hodgkins Middle School into senior apartments, the proposal is for the city to reach a long-term lease — with a payment from the authority of $1 a year — to use the Malta Street and Riverside Drive properties to develop housing.

The housing authority is also seeking to strike a deal with the city to buy for about $650,000 the current Augusta Police Station on Union Street, which is to be replaced with a station to be built on Willow Street.

The authority, which now has its offices at the building, would renovate the facility, retain office space there and turn the rest of the building into rental housing.

City councilors have yet to vote on that proposal.

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