Council can still move forward with $10K study
BRUNSWICK — A neighborhood group last week refused to endorse a planning and improvement grant because it believes the money would target the downtown area for subsidized housing and transitory residents.
The board of the NorthWest Brunswick Neighborhood Association held a private meeting Feb. 4 where it decided not to support the $10,000 Community Development Block Grant recently awarded to create a strategic neighborhood plan for street and infrastructure improvements, traffic flow and eventually a home improvement program.
According to Chris Ledwick, the group’s vicepresident, low- to moderate-income provisions attached to the home improvement program, as well as similar focus described in the application, led the board to reject the grant.
“The board was unanimous in wanting to accept the grant,” Ledwick said. “But the board couldn’t endorse it. It’s inconsistent with our purpose as an organization.”
Ledwick declined to provide the vote count, adding that it was a “majority decision”.
President Vicky Marr, who outlined the board’s concerns in an interview last week, this week declined to discuss the board’s action and referred all questions to Ledwick.
In a subsequent e-mail message, Marr said she voted in favor of the grant, but was the only member to do so.
The association notified the Town Council of its decision in a letter dated Feb. 10. The council, which in December accepted the grant, will now have to decide if it wants to move forward with the study.
According to Amanda Similien of the town’s Economic and Community Development department, the issue could come up during the council’s Feb. 17 meeting.
Similien, who applied for the grant, said she was disappointed by the neighborhood association’s rejection.
“It was just a planning grant,” Similien said. “It was a way to make the neighborhood more cohesive and more pedestrian friendly, maybe even spruce up the park. It was literally money to use there that the town doesn’t have.”
But Ledwick said the grant has unintended consequences, including designating the neighborhood as an area for subsidized housing, absentee landlords and transitory residents.
“This grant basically says if you live in subsidized housing, you live here,” Ledwick said. “That’s stigmatizing. We don’t want our town government saying this is a stated goal.”
Ledwick acknowledged the association’s decision risks the perception that members are attempting to gentrify the neighborhood.
“That’s obviously a concern,” he said. “It’s easy to misread this as here’s this group that doesn’t want poor people.”
But Ledwick said the board’s decision was based on two factors: a requirement that 51 percent of homes qualifying for the home improvement program be occupied by low- to moderate-income families, and a town-designated optional requirement that the grant benefit low- to moderate-income residents.
Ledwick said the group preferred the town had chosen an option to “eliminate slum and blight conditions.”
During a previous interview, Marr said the association wanted to encourage “a diverse socio-economic community with as much owner-occupied housing as possible” to avoid an overly “transient neighborhood.”
The NorthWest neighborhood is home to Tedford Housing, a homeless shelter, as well as many rental units and subsidized housing. Marr cited figures from the Brunswick Housing Authority – another stakeholder in the grant – showing 78 percent of the neighborhood’s housing as renter occupied. Thirty-seven percent of the rental units are subsidized.
In comparison, Marr said, the town has an overall rental rate of 36 percent.
Marr said many of the rental buildings are owned by absentee landlords, who in the past have allowed some rowdy transient tenants.
According to 2006 figures from the Maine State Housing Authority, low-income families are defined as having an annual household income between $23,714 and $37,198. Moderate-income households earn between $37,663 and $69,747.
According to 2000 Census data, more than 36 percent of Brunswick’s population falls under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development threshold of low- to moderate-income.
“What (the association) doesn’t understand is that low and moderate income is a lot of our community,” Similien said.
But Ledwick said the group feared the grant would handcuff landlords when they select tenants.
“We don’t want to prevent landlords from removing bad tenants,” he said. “At the same time we don’t want them not renting to a family that (earns more than the income threshold) because they won’t qualify for the home improvement program.”
The association was formed in 1998 in part because neighbors were frustrated with crime and codes violations. Its formation also coincided with another proposed homeless shelter, which the association successfully opposed.
Ledwick said the association has between 100 and 200 members. He said members joined by signing up for an e-mail list.
“We’re not the most politically active organization,” he said. “It’s basically pot-lucks and who’s bringing pigs-in-a-blanket.”
Ledwick said association members were not consulted prior to the board’s decision and that the board acted in accordance with the organization’s stated goals.
“We could no more (consult members) than a Town Councilor could their entire district,” he said.
“This wasn’t even a binding vote,” Ledwick added. “We just don’t think (the grant is) consistent with our organization’s purposes.”