Newly reorganized Fair Housing Committee gets rolling

The Fair Housing Committee, meeting for the first time since its membership was reorganized, charted a new path forward, establishing what its responsibilities are, and how it can work to bolster efforts to create more affordable housing in town.

Select Board Chair Moses Grader proposed the reorganization, which the committee approved in November, and installed Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer as chair along with adding Town Planner Becky Cutting and  Select Board member Erin Noonan to the committee. Grader has said the reorganization was put forward in an effort to augment the work of the committee and bring it closer to the work of the Select Board.

At their meeting last Thursday, the committee began the process of establishing new roles for members — including appointing former chair Deb Larkin as the committee’s vice chair and Mimi Hollister as the committee’s secretary.

The committee then moved on to a discussion of what it actually does, and how it separates its work from the work of the Housing Production Plan Committee and the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

“Trying to figure out how we can get more affordable housing in town … was our main focus,” said Larkin.

Curran suggested that the committee was better equipped than either of the other boards to lead discussion on how to use funds designated for affordable housing, like the home consortium funds the town is set to receive as a result of its cooperation with developers. She added that the Fair Housing Committee should also take a more active role in the education of residents surrounding issues of affordability.

The committee also discussed the future of the Coffin School, which has been shuttered since October 2021. The property was briefly set to become the temporary home of the Abbot Public Library during its renovation project, but the library was ultimately relocated to the Eveleth School, another recently shuttered school property.

Curran said for any project to begin at the Coffin site, the School Committee would have to declare it surplus and turn it over to the town.

But, Kezer said, the committee has not opted to do so, and no warrant was submitted for May’s Annual Town Meeting to initiate that process.

“We kind of did a visioning of what the different ideas that the town came up with and then we would do an RFI, which is kind of what you do before an RFP to sell the property, and you talk to developers about ‘this is what we want to do. what can we actually do?’ and you have several developers who issue it, and they talk to you about that,” said Curran, noting that that process would take roughly six months.

Looking ahead, Kezer said he hoped the state would “put its money where its mouth is” in terms of providing money to local communities to fund housing projects, particularly with Gov. Maura Healey and Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll citing housing as a major priority of their administration.

“Our task is to have our radar scope on and to be watching for whatever programs they announce and put out and look, to match, whatever those programs are to whatever our opportunities are locally in Marblehead,” Kezer said. “That’s the secret sauce for municipalities that are really good at getting funding and getting things done. It’s really being very effective of leveraging state dollars as much as possible and that’s an area we can focus on.”

“There’s going to be things that come up, and we’re going to want to take advantage of the funding sources and so we need to be kind of flexible in what we do,” added Curran.

Kezer said he intended to assemble a rough list of priorities for the committee, with the knowledge that the list would have to change as different properties became available in town, or as the state announced new programs. But, he said, a dedicated list would allow the committee to have direction, particularly with regards to the inventory of properties in town.

“First is just what’s the inventory, let’s document that and new things will come up, anytime that get added to it, but it’s from that that we manage our focus and time. So we’re not trying to do 20 things at once, we’re picking off two, three, five whatever our bandwidth is,” he said.

“It’s all part of the same effort of doing as much prep work in advance to be able to move much quicker when the opportunities come,” Kezer continued.