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FRANKLIN

Group aims to revamp apartments

Developer envisions modern complex of working-class residences

A private developer is hoping to convert two blighted, barely-occupied brick buildings in Franklin into homes worthy of working-class families.

New England Family Housing, a for-profit company based in New Hampton, is planning to buy the buildings at 188-198 South Main St. for $615,000 on Jan. 3. It would do so through a limited liability corporation, Franklin River Heights.

Kevin Lacasse, owner of New England Family Housing, said the buildings were built in the late 1970s, are currently owned by City National Bank in California and haven't undergone any capital improvements in decades.

So Lacasse is applying for $500,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds to help with the repairs. In exchange, Franklin River Heights would guarantee that the units remain affordable for 20 years.

"It's been severely run down and kind of deteriorating," he said of the buildings, full of avocado green countertops and blue shag rugs.

But the problems are more than cosmetic: faulty electrical outlets, inadequate smoke and carbon monoxide detection, mold, broken doors, a failing roof and a crumbling parking lot. Material from unoccupied units has been ripped out and used to maintain occupied ones, and water damage has forced gutting some walls down to the studs, Lacasse said.

The cost to rehabilitate the buildings could be as high as $650,000. That, plus the cost to buy, would exceed the property's value, Lacasse said.

"It's just continued to decline and . . . (has become) a last-resort place to live," Lacasse said. Only eight of the 30 units - 15 per building - are occupied, he said, and crime has filled the vacuum.

The police regularly respond to domestic and neighbor disputes in the buildings and drug activity in the area has been on the department's radar, Franklin police Chief David Goldstein said.

Lacasse said he'd like to attract a less-transient population to the neighborhood. Repairs not covered by the grant will be covered by private equity, Lacasse said.

The investment would also include energy efficiency upgrades as well as new security cameras and electronic access to the building, a move Goldstein said could improve community policing.

"I know for a fact if they are able to do what (Lacasse) proposed, you will see a change," Goldstein said. "Just the security measures alone will institute change."

New Hampshire will receive $3.2 million for housing and public facilities in 2012, said Kevin Flynn, a spokesman for the state's Community Development Financing Authority. The state distributes the grants through municipalities and counties, and each city or town can apply for $500,000 to spend on housing or public structures annually.

Because Franklin is already requesting Community Development Block Grant money to convert the former Bessie Rowell Elementary School to a community center, Lacasse applied through Merrimack County.

The city's and the county's applications are not mutually exclusive, said Jack McEnany, a grant writer with Merrimack County. But they will compete against one another from the same pool of money, which is a point of some concern to Franklin City Manager Elizabeth Dragon.

"If it comes down between the two of us, we hope ours is funded," she said.

But even with that competition in mind, the city council voted to support the measure last week, Dragon said, because New England Family Housing would improve buildings that are hurting area property values and provide full-time property management.

While Lacasse said he'll cap the rent at fair market values determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a move that helps support working families of low and moderate income, he will not seek out subsidized housing. Also, Lacasse will not expand the supply of affordable housing in Franklin. That was a crucial point to the city council, Dragon said.

Franklin has an "overabundance" of low-rent housing which attracts a transient population that often strains the city's school system and welfare fund, which is $356,000 in Franklin's $10 million municipal budget, Dragon said.

"If you pick up a paper and look for an apartment in the area, you will find most of the apartments with the low, affordable rent are right here in Franklin," Dragon said.

"When you have an overabundance of affordable housing, you're driving down the cost of housing, so you're making it harder for the property owners to make a living," she said.

If Lacasse intended to build more low-income housing units, Dragon said, the city council would have voted against him. However, he's "rehabbing a building that was already in existence and addressing an issue that was already here," she said.

Lacasse said he's had his eye on the foreclosed property for about 2½ years but was unsuccessful in earlier attempts to buy it.

If New England Family Housing receives the grant through the Community Development Finance Authority, it would still require the approval of the Executive Council. The renovations would begin this spring, Lacasse said, and current tenants would not be displaced.

"The residents are just neglected and on their own," he said.

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com.)

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