Swampscott’s Pitman House moving forward

SWAMPSCOTT — Following a lengthy and polarizing debate, the Affordable Housing Trust voted 3-2 to relocate the Pitman House from 35 Pitman Road to 7 Hillside Ave. and purchase the property so it can be redeveloped as affordable housing.

The Historical Commission first partnered with Essex County Habitat for Humanity to preserve the former home of town founder Samuel Cloon Pitman last year. As WinnDevelopment plans to build Elm Place, an affordable-housing complex, at 35 Pitman Road, the house is set for demolition on Sept. 15.

Historical Commission Chair Nancy Schultz and the Select Board’s AHT liaison, Doug Thompson, presented the commission’s proposal that the trust take on the cost of moving the Pitman House to 7 Hillside Ave. to avoid demolition and purchase the Hillside Avenue property for use as a single- or two-unit affordable-housing structure.

“Rehabilitating historic properties to provide affordable housing is a sound historic-preservation strategy,” Schultz said, quoting the Office of Housing and Urban Development.

Schultz added that while Swampscott is a “land-poor” town, it is rich with historical landmarks. She said AHT’s purchase of the house will help the town build its affordable-housing market while preserving a historical landmark.

Discussions became heated when AHT member Joan Honig saw that the proposed deal would cost the trust an estimated $330,000, which is more than half of the trust’s total funds of $603,000. She said the fact that $330,000 of the commission’s estimated $380,000 budget would fall on the trust made it a reckless investment.

“’I’m appalled. To put at risk $330,000 of Affordable Housing Trust funds is ridiculous and this is not a budget with sources — the only source is the Affordable Housing Trust funds,” Honig said. “We can not take on the risk of giving (the Historical Commission) $330,000, moving the building to another place, and then we’re left holding the bag if the other funding sources don’t materialize.”

AHT Chair Kimberly Martin-Epstein responded to Honig, saying that the Historical Commission is fundraising and applying for funds through the federal HOME Investments Partnership Program. She said the commission must relocate the Pitman House by Sept. 15 to save it from demolition and that the funds would most likely come in, just later in the fall.

“I don’t think the risk is that they don’t come in, I think it’s just the amount of time it takes,” Martin-Epstein said.

Honig added that she was uneasy with the fact that the proposed budget did not take into account development costs.

“Where are the numbers on that? If you’re asking us to vote blindly, and then commit Affordable Housing Trust funds, most of our funds, to a one-unit project, that’s absurd. We gave $50,000 for 120-plus units and now we’re going to give $330,000. We’re at risk for this project when they have never demonstrated any financial responsibility,” Honig said. “I would vote five times against this and I can’t believe that you’re even considering it.”

Martin-Epstein requested that Honig “turn down the heat,” before AHT member Aaron Berdofe asked Thompson to go through the numbers.

Thompson said that at least two units would be built at the Pitman House on Hillside Avenue. He reassured Honig that other forms of funding would assist the trust in the process, before arguing that in the worst-case scenario, the trust would absorb the $330,000 up front and then recoup the investment after the two units were sold as affordable housing.

“If the Affordable Housing Trust puts in $330,000 and there are grants to do the rehab, you have two units now that one could then sell at an affordable rate of $180,000 each. $180,000 to have a home ownership for two people, two families here in Swampscott. You getting all the trust’s funds back is a very reasonable scenario,” Thompson said.

Berdofe also expressed concern with the proposal, arguing that the price would significantly limit the trust’s ability to invest in other affordable-housing projects, with only two units to show for it. In response, Thompson suggested that the trust vote to approve an option agreement to buy the Hillside Avenue lot from its owner, Seaport Realty Trust LLC, and postpone the sale until after a development budget is finalized.

Honig interrupted the motion to adamantly restate her opposition to the trust’s involvement in the project. When the trust voted 3-2 in favor of the option agreement, with Berdofe and Honig opposed, Martin-Epstein suggested that the trust hold off on moving forward with the project until a better consensus could be reached.

Honig responded to Martin-Epstein’s request to delay the decision by asserting that the inexperience of some members was the reason why the proposal passed. Afterward, AHT member Eleanor Zambrano argued that the vote should be honored, calling Honig’s response “dismissive” of the process. Martin-Epstein reconsidered her idea to delay, and agreed to honor the vote and move forward.

“I am not going to defend my responsibility. I’m going to tell you that we’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make this a really interesting and good thing and this has nothing to do with peoples’ casual responsibility,” Martin-Epstein said.

Before the trust adjourned, Thompson attempted to remind the public that members of the trust, in coordination with the commission, had spent roughly a year planning the project and were not going into the agreement blindly.

“You were making it seem, Joan, as if people were voting on something blindly and I wanted to correct the record a little bit to say that it was —” Thompson said.

“Dark sunglasses,” Honig interjected.

“It’s very frustrating to have a conversation when you’re continually interrupted. So, I’ll just leave it at what I’ve said,” Thompson concluded.

In the next few weeks, the Affordable Housing Trust will meet with the Zoning Board of Appeals to seek sufficient relief to allow a two-story home on Hillside Avenue.

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