One year of Building New Bedford

One year of Building New Bedford

One year after New Bedford launched a landmark housing plan, the city is on track to build hundreds of new homes. 

More than 700 new housing units are in various stages of development, according to city officials. Most of them are in early planning stages, but nearly 200 are already under construction or were recently completed, like the new Holy Family High School redevelopment and the mixed-income apartments being built at 117 Union St.

“It’s a big leap,” said Josh Amaral, who directs the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development.

But the city hasn’t reached all of the goals in the plan yet. The City Council’s housing committee chair has grown impatient waiting for the administration to present zoning reforms. Some funding programs and efforts to revitalize vacant housing won’t yield results until later this year.

Spurring new development was a key goal of the Building New Bedford plan, announced in March 2023. The 22-point plan laid out a broad set of strategies to curb the housing crisis — helping developers plan projects, expanding housing assistance programs, reforming the zoning code, and more.

Most of the city’s progress over the past year has focused on the plan’s development goals. City staff met with 60 housing developers to help them plan out potential projects. The housing office also began taking a more active role in the permitting process. A new city hire, the vacant property development manager, has already been at work for months to get empty properties back on the market.

The 700-plus new units in the city’s pipeline mark a dramatic increase in the pace of housing production. The city added only 275 new housing units in the entire decade from 2011 to 2021, city officials said.

Still, even if every unit that’s now in the city’s pipeline comes on the market in the next few years, there’s evidence that it won’t be enough to fully address the region’s rising housing costs. Greater New Bedford has to build 8,700 new homes by the end of the decade to balance its housing market, according to a recent report by the New Bedford Economic Development Center.

“I’m happy to see that we’re finally prioritizing housing, but in this year since announcing the Building New Bedford plan, we haven’t been moving as quickly as we should be,” said City Councilor Shane Burgo, who chairs the council’s housing committee.

The councilor said he had hoped that thousands, not just hundreds, of new units would be in the pipeline by now. 

Burgo said he’s disappointed that the city still hasn’t fulfilled some of the promises it made last year.

In the plan, the mayor’s administration committed to drafting a set of zoning reforms that would make it easier to build multifamily housing. A year should have been enough time for the administration to send the regulations to the council for approval, Burgo said. But the administration is still working on the new zoning.

“We cannot continue to tell the people in our community just to wait,” he said. “You’re telling them to wait in the cold. You’re telling them to wait in the harshness of the outdoors while we sit in our homes.”

Some other goals in the plan, like selling vacant city properties and expanding homeownership programs, won’t be realized until later this year.

Building more housing

The city’s housing office has a new role under the plan: as a central resource for developers. Over the past year, housing staff have helped dozens of developers look for sites, figure out financing, and navigate the permitting process.

Amaral has developed a spreadsheet that can quickly show whether a project is likely to succeed. That work has helped smaller and newer developers make major contributions to the city’s housing pipeline, he said.

“Ultimately, most of it comes down to just math,” he said. “Some sites work better than others, but I think there is a developer for every project.”

Building relationships with developers so they keep building here is a critical part of the city’s strategy, Amaral said. He sees his office as a matchmaker, pairing developers with projects.

New Bedford has to “hustle” for development, Mayor Jon Mitchell said when he introduced the plan last year. Construction costs in New Bedford are about the same as other cities, but the rents are much lower here, which means lower returns for developers. Many of them choose to build in other areas where they can turn a higher profit.

That’s why it’s so important to make sure that New Bedford makes it easy for developers to build here, Amaral said.

Housing staff now attend “pre-permitting” meetings, in which developers meet informally with staff from all relevant city departments to go over their project. There, housing officials advocate against unnecessary permits or restrictions that get in the way of building more housing, Amaral said.

“Even developers agree, there has to be a process to go through,” he said. “But you just want it to feel like everybody’s oriented toward the goal of getting housing units built.”

The plan set a goal to “fast-track” the permitting process and fully permit large developments in under 90 days, but the city could not show that all projects were meeting that target.

It’s possible for a developer to get all necessary permits that quickly, Amaral said, but he thought that in hindsight, the goal should have been phrased with more nuance. Every project is different, he said, and some developers might choose to go through one permitting board at a time rather than applying for all their permits at once. 

Some builders have complained that the city’s Inspectional Services Department, one department involved with permitting, makes it too difficult to do business in New Bedford. On April 11, after Ward 6 Councilor Ryan Pereira presented a state report that found the department did not follow proper procedures in six permitting cases, the City Council referred the matter to its internal affairs committee.

Burgo, the chair of the housing committee, called on the administration to go even further in simplifying the permitting system.

“It shouldn’t be hand-holding with individual developers,” he said. “As a developer, I should be able to walk into City Hall and go through that process myself.”

The city did meet some smaller development goals. It expanded its eligibility zone for the Housing Development Incentive Program, a state tax incentive for housing in gateway cities. The zone now covers the entire city. One project, the redevelopment of the vacant Keystone lot into 45 new apartments, could become the first local project to receive state benefits through the program.

The city allocated 28% of its Community Preservation Act revenue for local housing projects this year, higher than the plan’s goal of 20%. The Community Preservation Committee distributed $607,500 to the Capitol Theater restoration, YWCA residential services, and Talbot Apartments renovation.

The former school at 121 North Street now houses 15 apartments. Credit: Eleonora Bianchi / The New Bedford Light

Making use of existing spaces

Two initiatives will start turning empty buildings into homes later this year, city officials say.

The plan created the vacant property development manager position — someone whose sole job is to get empty homes back on the market. Almost 400 buildings were on the city’s vacant building registry as of September, with a total of 570 empty housing units.

It’s the new manager’s responsibility to find the owners of vacant properties and figure out how to assist them. 

Some properties get stuck in probate court for years after their owners die. Others are so expensive to rehabilitate that developers can’t finish the job. Sometimes the owner just doesn’t know what to do with the property.

The new vacancy manager may help some owners find a real estate agent to help them sell the property, or a local contractor to help them with repairs. In probate court, the new manager can be the “squeaky wheel” that keeps cases moving.

The new hire has only been on the job for a few months, so the city didn’t have any major successes to report yet. 

In the plan, the city also committed to selling its own empty properties. A police station, two fire stations, and two schools are slated to be put up for sale over the next few months. The New Bedford Armory could go on the market later this year.

Promoting homeownership

The plan allocated $1.5 million in pandemic relief funds to expand the city’s first-time and low-income homeownership programs, but the money hasn’t been distributed yet. The city aims to start doling out funds this spring as homebuying season heats up.

The city’s first-time homebuyer program will expand its eligibility requirements and benefits. Buyers will be able to receive assistance with 5% of the purchase price of their first home, up to $40,000. The benefits are stackable with other programs.

Households making 80% of the area’s median income or less already qualify for the funding. The expanded program will raise the income limit, though the city has not yet announced by how much.

“Right now, frankly, most households at 80% of the area median income can’t afford to buy a home at all,” Amaral said.

Raising the limit could indirectly help lower income households, he added. When newly eligible families buy their first home, they’re likely to move out of an apartment, leaving more space in the rental market behind them.

The first-time homebuyer program helped only a couple of households last year, Amaral said. He expects the expanded program to help 20 to 30 new buyers before the funds expire at the end of 2026.

The extra funds will also help another 20 to 30 homeowners maintain their homes. Grants of up to $50,000 will help low and moderate-income homeowners pay for vital repairs like roof patches and heating system replacements, fix code violations, and make accessibility improvements. 

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell announces the Building New Bedford plan in March 2023.. Here, Mitchell explains how construction costs are the same across New England, but rents are higher in Boston than they are in New Bedford, so developers are incentivized to build in Boston to get a higher return on their investment. Credit: Grace Ferguson / The New Bedford Light

Updating regulations

Four zoning reforms are laid out in the plan, but the administration hasn’t presented any of them to the City Council for approval yet. 

The promised policies would make it easier to build housing by reducing minimum parking and lot size requirements, loosening restrictions on so-called “in-law” apartments, and setting up “transit-oriented” zoning districts around the city’s new MBTA stations.

The transit-oriented districts are designed to foster dense, walkable, mixed-use development. They are intended to bring the city into compliance with the MBTA Communities Act, a state law that requires the city to set up multifamily zoning districts by the end of this year.

The administration is still working on the reforms and putting them together as a comprehensive package, which will go to the City Council later this year, Amaral said. The city has been working with a consultant on the MBTA zoning.

“You have to measure twice and cut once when it comes to things like your city’s zoning code,” he said.

But Burgo thinks the administration is moving too slow. He said the council will consider each reform individually, rather than as a single package. And the council probably won’t approve the city’s package as-is — some councilors have said the city’s plans go too far in lowering parking minimums near the MBTA stations.

“They could have sent this a year ago; we could have been in committee discussing and dissecting this,” Burgo said. The housing committee chair said he’s willing to give the administration more time, but if the city doesn’t present its plan soon, he and the other councilors will propose reforms. “My colleagues are going to begin to govern if this administration fails to do so,” Burgo said.  

The administration will send some “interim” measures, like the parking reforms, to the council soon, Amaral said. 

Addressing housing instability and homelessness

Hundreds of thousands of dollars are flowing into city programs to prevent and alleviate homelessness.

Local rental assistance programs are on track to receive $500,000, plus another $300,000 for related support services, from the city’s pandemic relief housing funds. PACE and Community Counseling of Bristol County are the first local partners to receive the funds.

Another $100,000 was allocated for rental assistance programs run by PACE and Catholic Charities. In the second half of 2023, the two organizations served a total of 81 clients. An additional $300,000 has been set aside to help local nonprofits expand their capacity. 

The city is working with a consultant to evaluate its homelessness services system, another promise in the plan. The review will identify areas where local service providers are doing well and where they could improve. It’s expected to wrap up by the end of the summer, Amaral said.

Year two

In the second year of the plan, Amaral said his office will work to move projects from early development into the permitting stage, and those in the permitting stage into construction.

The city’s work with vacant buildings will also stand out, the housing director said.

“We’re gonna start to see big results there,” he said. “And that will unlock whatever the next set of strategies are.”

Building up nonprofit capacity to develop housing could be the next big push. Some projects aren’t profitable, so private developers won’t pursue them. 

“There are some projects that can really only be tackled by a nonprofit organization,” Amaral said.

New Bedford has fewer nonprofit housing developers than other communities, Amaral said, but the city plans to create new opportunities for these kinds of organizations through its vacant building initiative in the second year of the plan.

Housing development can be slow, so some work the housing office did in 2023 might not materialize until 2026. The housing director said he would love to have cut 10 ribbons this past year, but he’s had to temper his enthusiasm.

As Amaral sees it, the housing plan will never truly be complete. Many of its points aren’t specific tasks — they’re value statements that the city will have to work on continuously, he said. 

“We can tout successes on them in the meantime, but you’re never able to really check the box.”

Taking a regional approach

One section of the plan called for more coordination between New Bedford and surrounding towns. Amaral said he’s been in touch with other local leaders to advocate for more housing, but the city can’t force them to do anything. 

“We need the towns to sort of see the vision,” he said.

Amaral is optimistic — he said some towns have started to show more interest in building income-restricted family housing.

The New Bedford Economic Development Council will hold a half-day summit bringing together state, local, and industry leaders from 42 communities later this month. The “Housing For All Symposium” will take place at the Whaling Museum on April 30.

Email Grace Ferguson at [email protected]

The post One year of Building New Bedford appeared first on The New Bedford Light.