Old mill reborn into workforce-housing apartments in Franklin

  • Erin Schaick, development and marketing assistant for CATCH, looks up at the exposed floors from the old mill that is now in a bedroom of the new units at Franklin Mill in the city’s downtown. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Some of the architecture and white brick is still incorporated into the new affordable housing at the Franklin Mill in the city’s downtown. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The builders of the Franklin Mill housing project were able to keep some of the white brick and architecture of the old building. The rebirth of the Franklin Mill into lower-cost housing is a testament to the efforts of a whole bunch of people in the city, but it’s also a testament to a whole bunch of different ways of finding money. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • One of the new units in the Franklin Mill project in the downtown. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Construction on the conversion of the Franklin Mill into workforce housing continues alongside one of the turbines from the building’s milling days. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • One of the units in the Franklin Mill housing project. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Erin Schaick, development and marketing assistant for CATCH, walks outside the Franklin Mill housing project. Developers are converting the long-vacant building into affordable workforce housing, with the first tenants to move in by the end of the year. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The rebirth of the Franklin Mill into lower-cost housing is a testament to the efforts of a whole bunch of people in the city, but it’s also a testament to a whole bunch of different ways of finding money. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/27/2017 5:36:10 PM

The rebirth of the Franklin Mill into lower-cost housing is a testament to the efforts of a whole bunch of people in the city, but also to all the different ways of finding money.

“It costs the same to develop (this) 45-apartment mill building as if you were to do it on a market-rate basis,” said Rosemary Heard, president of CATCH Neighborhood Housing, which oversaw the conversion of the long-empty mill into one- and two-bedroom apartments that will rent for under $900 a month. The first tenants are expected to move in before the end of the year.

“Land costs have increased significantly over the year. The cost of construction is just going through the roof right now,” she said. “To be able to bring affordability, you have to use a plethora of funding sources.”

Plethora, indeed – as in $7.8 million of federal low-income housing tax credits and $1.8 million in federal historic-district tax credits, used to lure bank financing; $300,000 from the state affordable housing fund; $475,000 in a block grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development; and $1.1 million in a 30-year, zero percent loan, also from HUD. Oh, and don’t forget a $25,000 pre-development grant from NeighborWorks America.

Overwhelming? Perhaps, but not unusual.

“It’s very common for projects to have a mix of sources,” said Dean Christon, executive director of New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, a state-established agency that supports the development of lower-cost housing. “I’ve seen projects with as many as 10 funding sources in them.”

A building with history

The Franklin Mill, overlooking the Pemigewasset River, opened in 1895, the same year the city was incorporated. For the first half of the 20th century, it was an industrial machine shop, producing circular knitting machines and latch needles for manufacturing woolen and cotton hosiery, as well as knitted wear. At its peak, it employed 200 people.

The decline of the textile industry took its toll, however, and after being sold in 1963, the building was used variously as a food warehouse, apartments and for rental storage space. Plans to turn it into condominiums foundered during the 2008 recession, and in 2015 CATCH and others targeted it as the site for what is known as workforce housing.

Under a 2008 state law, workforce housing has a specific definition, and differs from Section 8 or subsidized housing. Most importantly, rents must be less than 100 percent of the area’s median income for a four-person household or 60 percent for a 3-person household, and stay that way for at least 15 years.

The goal is to provide housing for the middle-class households who have been increasingly priced out of New Hampshire’s strong housing market.

That is a concern to many people, not just housing advocates. The Business and Industry Association, for example, is pushing for zoning and other changes that make it easier to build workforce housing because the lack of it affects businesses’ ability to hire people.

“New Hampshire’s future workforce will continue to move elsewhere for jobs if low-to-moderate-income housing options in New Hampshire are not available,” the group warns in a statement.

New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority is focused on this issue: “We are hoping to add about 1,000 units across the state over the next year,” Christon said.

“One of the biggest challenges in the state is that a living wage for – let’s say one adult and two children – is $28.77 an hour, and minimum wage is $7.25,” Heard said. “The dilemma for everybody these days is to be able to afford an apartment.”

In fact, just finding an apartment can be a problem. Rental vacancy rates in New Hampshire fell below 2 percent last year – less than 4 percent is considered a “landlord’s market” – helping explain why average rents rose some 15 percent in 2016, according to the Housing Finance Authority.

“These projects, workforce housing, tend to have waitlists. There is always a demand for additional units, particularly in more active markets: Franklin, on south,” Christon said.

Heard said the CATCH Franklin project is working through a stack of applications to find families and people with the proper income, credit and who meet other requirements.

“We can look at 20 applicants and find maybe two that are income-qualified,” she said.

Adaptive reuse

The Franklin project is what is known as “adaptive reuse” of an existing building. This is not uncommon for workforce housing, although the complexity and expense of cleaning up old industrial buildings can be an obstacle to holding down costs.

“Sometimes there’s a mill building that works – we like those because obviously it’s reuse,” Christon said. “But we’re also focused on doing new construction when it makes sense. We work with developers to see what works best.”

The apartment complex is being called Franklin Light and Power as a nod to its industrial past, with as much of the brick left exposed as possible and most of its more than 450 huge windows – an aspect of mills built before electricity, when operation needed as much daylight as possible – preserved.

It will have 19 single-bedroom, and 26 two-bedroom apartments, clustered into “pods,” a design chosen to avoid the long straight hallways often found in converted mills.

“Each will have five units off a small lobby area, as compared to 45 units off a long hallway,” Heard said. Most of these clusters will have their own entrance, as well.

“About 500,000 of these mills exist around the country – typically amazing locations, but they come with their own set of issues, including environmental issues,” Heard said. “Every single one is different. Fortunately, we didn’t encounter any big surprises here.”

In Franklin, the opening of the apartment complex is seen as part of a rebirth of downtown that makes use of the winding Winnipesaukee River, just upstream of its connection with the Pemigewasset River to form the Merrimack River. Other natural lures include Trestle Park, a long riverside walk and a whitewater kayak area.

Heard noted that the units will pay about $55,000 in property taxes to the city each year.

She said she’s also proud that 20 percent of the units are reserved for income-qualified veterans, reflecting the nearby New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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