CONWAY — Skeptical residents peppered the leaders of the Bluebird Project, a business aiming to create affordable housing in town, with questions during a public hearing selectmen held Tuesday.
The Bluebird Project LLC is headed by veterinarian Eliza Grant and Kit Hickey, an MIT lecturer on entrepreneurship, both Conway residents.
They are seeking a $500,000 Community Block Grant. The hearing was a requirement for getting the grant, as only a municipality can apply for the funds, which are administered by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money would go toward the project’s purchase of the cottages section of the Spruce Moose Lodge & Cottages on Seavey Street in North Conway. Grant and Hickey want to turn them into four small single-family residences; three have to qualify as affordable housing.
On Tuesday, selectmen held the public hearing on the grant. Grant and Hickey were joined by grant consultant Donna Lane.
Grant sits on the planning board, and Hickey serves on the budget committee. “We’re looking at this project in terms of where can we get workers, people of at the hospital, day-care providers, teachers into housing right now,” said Hickey.
“And this seemed to fit that bill, because these cottages had been long-term housing prior. And three of these units would be available for long-term housing pretty soon. The fourth would have to be converted.”
Lane said the grant would obligate Bluebird to keep these units as “affordable housing” for at least five years, though Hickey and Grant at a previous selectmen’s meeting said they would do so for at least 10 years.
Lane said in New Hampshire, five years would satisfy the grant because the state is so “desperate” for affordable housing. However, five years didn’t satisfy Selectman Mary Carey Seavey.
“Five years goes by pretty darn fast,” said Seavey, who said she would prefer 20 years and got agreement from Selectman Steve Porter.
Grant replied, “We would be willing to do 10 years. We can have that be on the record of this meeting.”
Ultimately, selectmen voted 5-0 that they would submit the grant application stating that Bluebird will keep the units affordable for 10 years.
In response to a question, Lane said if something “went awry,” funds to repay the grant would come from a lien on the property and “never from taxpayer dollars.”
Money from the grant would be used to purchase the Spruce Moose’s cottages and renovate one of them into a single-family cottage, said Grant last week.
Seavey Street resident Russell Rennie questioned whether $500,000 for a few units is a good use of government money.
“You could pay the rent for three units full out for somebody to live for free for those 10 years, as opposed to just a discount,” said Rennie, who also questioned why grant money would be used to help Grant and Hickey purchase the cottages.
“I’m looking at it as being that federal money is going to just switch from one private ownership to another ownership and very little as either going to the town benefit, or only three units going up for rental,” he said.
Rennie and several other people questioned if Bluebird could maintain the structures given that the principals don’t seem to be experienced property managers.
“We’re very concerned that if they were to decline, because you’re getting a little market value, you have no real plan as far as what are these buildings worth after the 10 years,” said Rennie.
Grant and Hickey pledged to maintain the property.
Rennie also questioned whether Bluebird would have the right to use Patton Court as it is a dead-end private street off of Seavey that gives access to the Spruce Moose’s dumpster and parking spaces.
Grant and Hickey said they are working on the Patton Court issues and will address it with the planning board.
Marc Cobrey, who owns a property on Patton Court, asked similar questions as Rennie, as did Mary
Cobrey said the project seemed to be coming together in “a rush,” which could lead to a “bad outcome.” He also asked a number of questions about the lock-in period.
Dailey also asked Grant and Hickey who their “silent partner” was.
Grant, during an interview with White Mountains TV, said there’s an investor who is a “friend of the valley” who wants to see historical buildings saved.
“Who exactly is running this?” Dailey asked.
Grant and Hickey didn’t respond.
Cobrey asked why the Mount Washington Valley Housing Coalition isn’t working with the Bluebird Project, and the coalition’s executive director, Harrison Kanzler, replied that the coalition is strongly in favor of the Spruce Moose and Bluebird’s other proposal for the Bunker Building on Pine Street and has been working with the Bluebird Project on it since August.
Kanzler said $500,000 seems reasonable to him to cover acquisition costs and the cost of renovating one of the Spruce Moose buildings. He said affordable housing is sorely needed. He said there is “nothing sinister” about the project.
“As far as changes coming to the valley, I’ve lived here, obviously my entire life and one thing that has not changed substantially is the amount that a lot of the part-time workers in our valley are being paid, but their rents have changed considerably, as has their ability to purchase a home,” said Kanzler.
“So while this is very small scale, and while there may be concerns that people are bringing up about, you know, the background of folks doing it, the fact is we need people doing this, we need the units, even if it’s three or four units, that’s three or four more units,” he said.