Since 1885, the YWCA in Newburyport has provided rooms for women, making it one of the oldest continuously operating affordable housing projects in the country.
Now, it is expanding that mission.
The YWCA has always maintained boardinghouse-style single rooms at its main building on Market Street, where 11 women now live. And since 1998, it has had five affordable apartments in a house it bought next door.
Construction to double the number of apartments to 10 has started at the house at 11 Market St. They will be available to low-income women, men, and families; some units will be designated for homeless or disabled tenants.
“The dream [to expand] started about six years ago,” said John Feehan, executive director of the YWCA Greater Newburyport. “But very little happened for many years.”
Then the Y partnered with the L.D. Russo construction company. “They approached us and asked why the project hadn’t moved forward,” Feehan said. “The answer was we didn’t have the resources or the money to get it done.”
L.D. Russo worked with the Y “to do the front work you have to do to get a project like this off the ground,” Feehan said.
With grants from the city and $1.2 million from the state approved in April 2012, as well as other funds, the project was launched.
“It’s a testament to the state that they want to diversify the housing stock and are not concentrating all the low-income affordable housing in the large cities,” Feehan said. “To have the state put resources into Newburyport is important.”
Donna Holaday, mayor of Newburyport, has been a supporter of the Y’s efforts. “These projects are complex,” she said. “But, there are nice things happening.”
She said the state requirement is that 10 percent of a community’s housing stock be deemed affordable. Newburyport is now at about 8.3 percent.
Holaday added that the city has hired a consultant to help put together a master plan for affordable housing.
Feehan said it is hoped the Y’s $2.2 million renovation will be done within the year.
He said the five current tenants, who are now in temporary housing around the city, will be returning. The tenants for the five additional apartments will be selected by lottery.
There are income requirements, as well as units reserved for people who are homeless and for households in which at least one member is disabled.
Jean Berger, vice president of the YWCA board and incoming president in April, said: “It’s been a strategic goal to expand affordable housing. We are just excited that we are meeting real community needs.”
Judy Tymon, outgoing president, said the board has been focusing on affordable housing since 2006, but that several factors, including the recession, were obstacles.
“It is absolutely so exciting to work on a project and see it come to fruition,” she said. “There was a time we didn’t think it would happen.”
Feehan and Berger said affordable housing is key to the Y’s mission of “empowering women.”
“Generally, the women who come here are seeking to rebuild their lives from some catastrophe or some event in their lives,” said Feehan. “There are some women who have been recently divorced, some women coming out of alcohol rehab programs, some women who just made poor financial decisions, and some women who choose this as a good fit for their lives.”
He added that the downtown location of the Y allows residents to live and work in the same community. “If you are working at minimum wage, you can’t afford rent in Newburyport,” he said. “Many of the women who live here work in the service industry and don’t have a car. Because of where we are located, it allows people to walk to work.”
In September, the YWCA also opened an affordable child-care center on Pond Street in Newburyport.
“We see child care and affordable housing as closely tied to the mission,” Feehan said. “In order for women to succeed economically, they need affordable child care. By making it so, a family can use this as a basis for economic success.”
Berger said the Y’s housing and other social service efforts aren’t well known in the community. “I haven’t figured out how it stays such a secret, because it’s not a secret,” she said. “But, for some reason when people think about the YWCA they think about our pool and health and wellness programs, and yet we are so much more.”