Young advocate pushes affordable housing in Hamilton


HAMILTON — As conversations around affordable housing in town continue, a group of advocates has begun attending meetings on the topic in town and hopes to educate others about the issue.

The group is led by Laura Miller, an 18-year-old student at Waring School, a private 6-12 school in Beverly, and a Hamilton resident. She recently teamed up with housing nonprofit Harborlight Community Partners, which has proposed two small affordable housing complexes in town.

The town’s Affordable Housing Trust is considering both projects — 20 new apartments for senior citizens at the former Mac’s Shoe Repair site on Willow Street, which is owned by the town, and another up to 40 units of housing on empty land off Longmeadow Way, according to Selectman Bill Wilson, a member of the trust.

The process has been tedious at best — Harborlight has spent the past couple of years working with the town to identify sites for affordable housing.

When it comes to affordable housing, the town is lacking. Three percent of Hamilton’s housing stock is deemed affordable under state guidelines — well under the state’s 10 percent required threshold. In order to meet that mandate, the town needs about 200 new affordable apartments.

Miller’s interest in affordable housing grew when she began volunteering at Harborlight House, a home for the elderly in downtown Beverly that is managed by Harborlight.

She went on the organization’s website to learn more and found information on its work in Hamilton, the town she’s called home for just over a year.

“I was so shocked and upset,” she said of reading about the challenges the organization was facing. Miller immediately emailed Andrew DeFranza, Harborlight’s executive director, and asked what she could do to help.

That was last fall. Since then, Miller has spoken at meetings about the need for affordable housing in Hamilton, and she’s gotten some friends from Waring to go with her. She’s also working with another resident to build an advocacy group in town for the cause.

A need for diversity

Attitudes toward affordable housing have to do with assumptions, Miller said — negative thoughts about who lives or would live in the apartments.

“They’re based on things that are not true, but they have real effects on people,” she said.

Diversity is important, Miller said, adding that she and her cohort of affordable housing advocates want that for the town.

Wilson has noticed Miller and the rest of the group at the meetings.

“That’s encouraging to see,” he said.

Harborlight’s proposals have been met with mixed views in town. While those that live near the Willow Street property are fine with the nonprofit’s plan, neighbors of the Longmeadow site have promised a lawsuit if the town decides to move forward with that project, according to Wilson.

Currently, the trust is considering the language for two $300,000 grants to Harborlight to help pay for the projects. Harborlight can’t do one without the other, DeFranza said — it isn’t feasible when considering how affordable housing is funded.

Wilson said there are other potential sites in town for future housing projects. There’s land the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary owns and is considering for affordable housing, plus empty land next to the library that could eventually be built on, though there’s a deed restriction and septic work that would need to be done first.

If the town can build these projects, Wilson said it will at least show the state that the town is trying to meet its affordable housing requirement.

Because the town isn’t at the threshold, it’s susceptible to developers coming in and skirting local zoning.

“We’re going to show progress,” Wilson said.

Miller said that at 18, she’s thinking about her future and what she wants that to look like, including her own community.

“Right now I’m in a really amazing space where I can actually kind of influence the future a little bit,” she said.

Arianna MacNeill can be reached at 978-338-2527 or at amacneill@salemnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SN_AMacNeill.

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