Lawrence, Massachusetts: From Textile Mill to Affordable Housing
Situated on the Merrimack River 25 miles north of Boston, the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, traces its industrial roots to the 19th century. In recent decades, Lawrence, like many New England cities, has been grappling with the fallout of the textile manufacturing industry’s relocation out of the Northeast, which has left behind numerous old, abandoned, or underused factory buildings. The built legacy of the industrial era is providing an opportunity today to repurpose the historic structures for affordable housing and other uses. This repurposing is revitalizing the city’s core, ensuring inclusive mixed-use development, and preserving the aesthetic of this mill town. One such project, Duck Mill, earned local community development corporation Lawrence Community Works (LCW) a 2018 Vanguard Award in the category of Major Rehabilitation of a Historic Structure into Affordable Housing from the National Affordable Housing Management Association. Duck Mill achieved a high level of design and, as a result of financing difficulties stemming from the Great Recession, took advantage of wide-ranging financial tools to become reality.
Converting Duck Mill
The 5-story, 130,000-square-foot Duck Mill, dating from 1896, served as a factory producing duck — a heavy canvas used to make items such as sails and tents — until the 1950s. The building then became a furniture showroom for several decades before finally being left largely vacant. This relic and eyesore has recently joined other former mill buildings in the area that now have new lives as housing, offices, and retail space. Duck Mill hosts 7 one-bedroom, 37 two-bedroom, and 29 three-bedroom apartments. In 20 of the units, eligible residents can earn no more than 30 percent of the area median income (AMI), and in the remainder, tenants can earn up to 60 percent of AMI. Building amenities include a gym, bike storage, and a community room with a full kitchen. Commercial space totaling 35,000 square feet accommodates a restaurant, and according to John Harden, LCW’s current director of real estate, negotiations are underway for a dress shop specializing in quinceañera gowns, catering to Lawrence’s significant population with Hispanic heritage.
Duck Mill’s successful conversion into affordable housing depended on many funding sources, each with program requirements that advance numerous policy objectives (table 1). Obtaining financing in the years following the Great Recession was particularly difficult, notes Lisa Kozol, LCW’s former director of real estate and current consultant, which required the developer to assemble funding from numerous, disparate sources. To supplement the federal and state low-income housing tax credits that provided most of the funding, LCW received federal and state historic tax credits, with requirements to preserve certain historic details such as custom-made replica windows, original mahogany doors, and office interiors repurposed as commercial space, each adding to Duck Mill’s character. In some cases, preserving older materials has other benefits. According to Jessica Andors, executive director of LCW, preserving the original hardwood floors contributes to a healthier interior environment because the floors contain no volatile organic compounds and, unlike carpeting, do not accumulate allergens.
Table 1: Funding Sources for Duck Mill
|Federal low-income housing tax credit equity||$9,500,000|
|Massachusetts low-income housing tax credit equity||3,750,000|
|Federal historic tax credit equity||4,500,000|
|State historic tax credit equity||2,250,000|
|Lawrence HOME Investment Partnerships Program||400,000|
|Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development HOME Investment Partnerships Program||550,000|
|Massachusetts Commercial Area Transit Node Housing Program||486,000|
|Massachusetts Affordable Housing Trust Fund||950,000|
|Massachusetts Housing Stabilization Fund||1,000,000|
|Massachusetts Facilities Consolidation Fund||600,000|
|Massachusetts Community Based Housing program||450,000|
|MassDevelopment Brownfields Redevelopment Fund||672,000|
|Lawrence Community Works loan||961,000|
|ENERGY STAR® rebates||50,000|
|Massachusetts Housing Partnership loan||3,362,000|
Seven units at Duck Mill received funding from the state’s Facilities Consolidation Fund and Community Based Housing program. The former program supports the development of units occupied by people receiving services through the Department of Mental Health (DMH) and the Department of Developmental Services (DDS). The latter program supports accessible units reserved for individuals with disabilities who are institutionalized or at high risk of institutionalization and who do not receive DMH or DDS services; at Duck Mill, this program funded renovations to add wheelchair accessibility to certain units as well as power-operated doors throughout the building. Massachusetts’s Commercial Area Transit Node Housing Program provided nearly $500,000 because Duck Mill is a dense, transit-oriented, mixed-use, and affordable residential development. Other sources of financing included HOME Investment Partnerships Program funds from the city of Lawrence and from the state. In addition, MassDevelopment, the state’s finance and development agency, funded brownfield remediation for the site. Because the developers pursued an energy-efficient design, Duck Mill was awarded $50,000 in ENERGY STAR® rebates and is one of the first affordable housing developments in Massachusetts meeting passive design standards, according to Harden.
Gateways to Opportunity
One of LCW’s core objectives is to provide services to help residents build financial assets. One mechanism for community members to grow their resources is a peer lending circle, in which members share their resources to provide a pool of money to loan out to each participant in turn. LCW has partnered with Mill Cities Community Investments, a local community development financial institution that can report the loans to credit bureaus, helping participants build a credit history. Individual development accounts, in which participants save money that is matched on a 2:1 or 3:1 basis, also give participants a head start at wealth building. In addition, LCW offers financial education for its clients through one-on-one coaching sessions that help families establish and reach financial goals, including homeownership. These contacts are proving useful in another way during the pandemic, as LCW has directed these coaches to help residents find services they may need to address the disruptions from COVID-19. Technical support for startups and existing small businesses round out LCW’s asset building program, but services extend into other areas as well. For example, LCW offers English language courses to serve Lawrence’s large immigrant population. Courses in practical subject areas such as computer skills and financial literacy are also offered. Because many residents come from Spanish-speaking countries, LCW also provides Spanish language GED® classes. Undergirding the suite of programs is LCW’s belief in creating strong community connections that build resiliency and uplift residents.
Since the 19th century, Lawrence’s textile mills have been a bridge to opportunity for new Americans, attracting successive waves of immigrants from Canada, Poland, Lithuania, Syria, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Western European and other countries. Even though the city lost much of its manufacturing base, Lawrence continues to represent the American melting pot, with nearly 40 percent of its current population born abroad. Replacing the lost manufacturing jobs and returning the mill buildings to active use has for decades been the focus of the city, LCW, and other developers and nonprofits. More than a million square feet of housing and commercial space has been created in the former mills. Recent and ongoing projects include the conversion of the 525,000-square-foot Everett Mills into commercial and office space; the construction of new apartments underway in the former Wood Mill; and LCW’s conversion of 400,000 square feet of mill space into affordable housing, commercial space, and artists’ studios.