LexHAB is out front on effort to preserve affordable housing in Lexington

By Jim Shaw

Lexington has undergone many significant changes over the past few decades. Great public schools and excellent municipal management have made Lexington a very desirable community. This has led to an increase in ethnic diversity, and skyrocketing home values that no one could have predicted. While the future looks bright, the rising cost of housing in Lexington have left some with little hope of calling Lexington home. The Lexington Housing Assistance Board, or LexHAB, recognized over three decades ago that more and more families who either wanted to stay in Lexington or relocate here, were essentially being priced out of the market. Since 1984, LexHAB has been at the forefront of preserving and expanding affordable housing opportunities here in Lexington.

Celebrating the dedication of LexHAB’s newest properties are (Top L to R): Kyle Romano, Chris Traganos, Lester Savage, town manager Carl Valente, Mark Sandeen, selectman Doug Lucente, selectman Suzie Barry, LexHAB counsel Pat Nelson, LexHAB chairman Bill Kennedy, LexHAB board members Bill Hays and Martha Wood. Standing to the left are LexHAB board member Henry Liu, Representative Jay Kaufman, and LexHAB vice chair Bob Burbidge.

Developers set their sights on Lexington nearly twenty-years ago and the “tear-down” craze began in earnest. Homes that were remotely affordable were grabbed up by developers, torn down, and redeveloped into what locals have dubbed “McMansions.” More and more opportunities for affordable home ownership slipped away with little objection. The ability for kids who were raised in this community to put down roots of their own was essentially foreclosed upon as hundreds of potential “entry-level” homes were lost to builders. Some believe that town officials were slow to address the situation because the new, larger homes were bringing in significantly more tax revenue. Even more, Lexington’s Vision 20/20 speaks specifically to affordable housing. Under the theme Promote and Strengthen Community Character, points 3 and 4 encourage the Town to: “Provide increased housing options to promote diversity of income and age, and create strong incentives to maintain and expand affordable housing.” This made the need for affordable housing options even greater, and LexHAB rose to the challenge. Since it was established, LexHAB has built an inventory of nearly 70 properties, providing dozens and dozens of families the ability to call Lexington home.

One of the original LexHAB board members, David Eagle, had a vision for creating a program that would benefit the community in a profound way, while providing opportunities for its partners. Dave, who passed away in 2015, suggested that the Lexington Rotary Club could act as the general contractor to build homes to add to the LexHAB inventory. They would invite students from Minuteman Regional High School to provide the skilled labor under the supervision of their instructors. Everyone would win. LexHAB would add beautiful new homes to its stock, the Rotary Club would establish a new and vital way to serve the community, and the students at Minuteman would experience real-world conditions as part of their education. The property recently developed by LexHAB at 11 Fairview Avenue is the 14th home built in cooperation with Minuteman High School and students from several shops including carpentry, electrical, plumbing and HVAC.

Lester Savage of Lester Savage Real Estate/Century 21 Commonwealth assumed responsibility as project coordinator when Dave Eagle passed. Savage has served on the LexHAB board for many years and was eager, yet cautious to step into the role. Lester explained that his predecessor Dave Eagle made it seem simple, but it clearly wasn’t. Savage said, “Dave was a problem solver. He had a keen ability to get to the heart of a problem. He made things run smoothly and dedicated thousands of hours over the years to advancing this program. I was worried that his shoes were going to be too large to step in to.” By all accounts, Savage and the other members of the LexHAB team stepped up in a big way. In fact, they are currently negotiating the building of at least two additional sights. The larger of the two involves the construction of two 3-family dwellings at the site of the former Busa Farm on Lowell Street.

Lester is quick to share the spotlight with his fellow board members, the contractors and the students from Minuteman High School. He said, ” Working with the students at Minuteman Regional High School has become a tradition that we look forward to. This particular project on Fairview consisted of two buildings; one is essentially a remodeling of an existing building which we turned into a single-family dwelling, the other is a brand new building that will accommodate three families and adhere to strict ADA standards for handicapped accessibility. In order to complete the project on time, we essentially split the project between the students at Minuteman and a company named Feltonville Building Company. This concept worked very well in that it didn’t place too much of a strain on the students from Minuteman and allowed a good company like Feltonville to construct a beautiful new building. This was truly a win-win situation.”

Savage added, “If I needed someone to fill a gap at the old house I could get someone to take care of it. The students finished about 90% of the job, certain aspects were beyond their ability. But, the students, as always, did an extraordinary job. Their work is beautiful. They built it to a higher standard than most contractors. It was an old house so there were framing issues and Chris Traganos from Minuteman’s carpentry shop really worked closely with the students to do things the right way.”

As the project leader from LexHAB, Lester depended on advice and counsel from other members of the board including chairman Bill Kennedy and vice chairman Bob Burbidge. He also looked to draw on the experience of others who have participated in the past. Kyle Romano and Chris Traganos from Minuteman have been involved in previous projects. Lester explained that Kyle Romano from the plumbing shop was his liaison to Minuteman. He said, “It was my first time leading a project like this for LexHAB, so Kyle helped me to better understand the expectations of working with the students. At the end of the day, they met and exceeded my expectations. I can see why Dave Eagle was such a proponent of working with them.”

The concept of approaching the construction from two perspectives was a bit daunting. In one situation they were dealing with redeveloping an existing property. They were also looking to build a brand new multi-family building that would meet their low energy consumption stands. So, while the students focused on the redevelopment project, Feltonville Building Company was selected as the general contractor for the multi-family building.

Feltonville owner, Ian Mazmanian, was impressed with LexHAB from the very start. He explained that he had never quite seen the level of commitment to building such a large inventory of affordable housing. Mazmanian said, “Working with LexHAB was an incredible experience for us. It really opened my eyes to what is possible when good people come together to do good things. Working with Lester Savage and the others that LexHAB was especially rewarding. These are people who are committed to the idea of providing quality affordable housing to folks who might not otherwise have an opportunity to reside in a community like Lexington. Clearly, there is a need, and we were honored to participate in this project.”

Like Lester, this was Mazmanian’s first experience at leading a LexHAB construction effort. He said, “This was our first experience working with LexHAB, and it couldn’t have been more fulfilling. We had been working with Transformations [the original contractor] and circumstances prevented them from continuing on the project. We were ready and eager to take over the project.”

There were certain challenges with the specs on the project. For example, the project was originally intended to meet handicapped accessibility standards. It was changed to meet ADA standards (Americans with Disability Act). The differences are subtle, very important. It affects counter appliance requirements and basic mobility needs. But, Feltonville was able to adapt to the change seamlessly.

Mazmanian explained that he was pleased to see the students from Minuteman on the site, and that he was impressed with their commitment and skill levels. He said, “Although we were principally retained for the new 3-family building, we were involved to some degree with the old house project. We pulled the permits and assisted the students from Minuteman as needed. They were a great bunch of kids who are clearly devoted to honing their skills. I really enjoyed working with them.”

Lester explained that Transformations, the original contractor was unable to continue on the project. They had been working with Ian Mazmanian from Feltonville who stepped right in that took over the project. Lester said, “The folks at Feltonville are honest, and they do good quality work. Their clerk-of-the-works, Dave Woerpel served as the site manager and he really helped the project to move along. I would recommend them to anyone.” Lester also expressed gratitude to several local contractors and builders who provided goods and services at below market rates. They include Bob Foss Contracting, Arlex Oil Corporation, Arlington Coal & Lumber, J.M. McLaughlin Excavating and Wagon Wheel’s landscaping division.

Zero net energy is a concept that is becoming a standard here in Lexington. Last month in his Colonial Times column, Mark Sandeen outlined LexHAB’s commitment to very low to zero net energy consumption. Mazmanian explained that he appreciated LexHAB’s commitment to meeting very low net energy usage standards. He said, “One aspect of the project that I was particularly impressed with was the commitment to zero energy consumption. LexHAB was firm in their resolve to build a close to zero net energy facility. In the end, we achieved a 1 to 2 net energy rating.” Savage added, “There’s no reason why you can’t produce affordable housing that will be affordable in the long run, especially when it pertains to energy consumption. Our energy rating at the new property is better than 99% of the homes that are being built. Where in the top 1%. We are committed to drastically reducing the carbon footprint. Lexington is ahead of the curve when it comes to reducing consumption, and we want to honor that commitment by doing everything we can to achieve high energy standards on all of our new properties.”

Mazmanian emphasized that working with LexHAB was a uniquely satisfying experience. He said, “The overall experience of working with LexHAB was better than I could have imagined. Lester spent a great deal of time working with us and we felt supported throughout the entire project. I look forward to future opportunities to work with LexHAB.”

For Savage and the rest of the LexHAB organization, the challenge of identifying affordable building opportunities is becoming much greater. Lester explained that in order to meet their criteria, they have to be able to acquire land and build for well under $500,000 per unit. With land values in Lexington constantly climbing, meeting their budget limits is becoming nearly impossible. Lester said, “The challenge for us is to find a site that is affordable and within our budget. At Fairview Avenue we were able to acquire a good size parcel of land for around $500,000 and keep the construction cost to under $900,000. With the cost of land constantly increasing, it really is a challenge to find buildable lots within our budget to allow us to increase our inventory of affordable housing. We were able to build the Fairview properties at a cost of about $380,00 per unit.”

Savage added, “The multi-family property at Fairview should serve as a good model for what we hope to do at the Busa Farm property. In order to build affordable units you have to have multiple units. It’s really the only plausible way to keep total building costs under $500,000 per unit. If we wanted to build a single-family and keep it affordable, we would have to buy a lot for approximately $300,000 and keep building cost under $200,000. The multiple-unit concept was how we were able to keep the costs in check.”

LexHAB is a working organization comprised of individuals who have dedicated countless hours of service for a cause that grows more important every day. Lexington is fast becoming an exclusive community with few housing opportunities for low and moderate income families. The work of LexHAB and the people who make it happen has never been more necessary.

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