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ARPA funds used to help save Springfield's aging housing stock

This house on Westford Ave. in Springfield will undergo a $177,000 makeover thanks to ARPA money that Mayor Domenic Sarno allocated to the Healthy Homes Program. Created in 2017 the program was designed to help preserve the city's aging housing stock and help low-income homeowners remain in their homes.
Paul Tuthill
This house on Westford Ave. in Springfield will undergo a $177,000 makeover thanks to ARPA money that Mayor Domenic Sarno allocated to the Healthy Homes Program. Created in 2017 the program was designed to help preserve the city's aging housing stock and help low-income homeowners remain in their homes.

A program helps low-income homeowners pay for major repairs

Springfield, Massachusetts, known as “The City of Homes,” is using part of its allotment from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to help preserve its older housing stock.

The large two-and-a-half story house with the big enclosed front porch on Westford Avenue in the Upper Hill neighborhood has been home to four generations of one family.

“This house has a lot of meaning to us,” said Velada Chaires, who raised her children in the house and lives there with her elderly mother, whose parents also once lived there.

Built in 1910, the place needs a lot of work from top to bottom. Squirrels have wreaked havoc to the roof and there is a large crack in the basement foundation. (nat)

The plumbing is old, the electrical system is badly outdated, the windows need to be replaced, and there is lead-based paint throughout.

“Just getting all of that upgraded is just going to be amazing,” Chaires said.

A home repair project of this scale, she said, is well beyond her means.

“The house has been paid off for years and the things that need to be done would have required getting another mortgage,” she said. “On my one income we never would be able to pull it off.”

By word-of-mouth, she had heard about a city-administered program that would pay for a whole-home rehabilitation for low-income residents. But not until last year when Mayor Domenic Sarno allocated $4 million in ARPA funds to the Healthy Homes Program did it become available in her neighborhood.

“As soon as I heard, I went running to get an application,” Chaires said.

The city started accepting applications in June 2022 and had to stop less than two months later after almost 200 people had applied and it was estimated the money would be exhausted.

“Certainly, coming out of the pandemic with inflation, increased construction costs, increased interest rates, and folks that had financial instability also related to the pandemic, this is something we knew there would be a significant demand for,” said Tina Quagliato Sullivan, Director of Disaster Recovery for the city of Springfield, whose office administers the program.

There is also some significant red tape involved. Along with federally-dictated income restrictions there are requirements for multiple inspections, multiple bids from contractors looking to do the work, and legal documents to be signed between the homeowner and the city.

“It is a bit of a process to get to actual construction,” Quagliato Sullivan acknowledged.

After putting in an application about 18 months ago, Chaires only recently signed a contract for $177,000 so the construction work can begin.

“We’re just anxiously excited about the prospect of getting work done on the house that we never would have been able to pull off,” Chaires said.

The influx of ARPA money allowed the city to significantly expand into more neighborhoods the Healthy Homes Program that was created initially in 2017 using a $5 million Community Development Block Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That previous funding paid for the rehab of 44 properties, according to city records.

One of them is an orange-colored duplex on Pine Street in the Six Corners neighborhood. It is owned and occupied by Karen Markham.

“They brought my house up to code, they put a roof on it, redid the attic, new electric, painted all the rooms, gave me a new kitchen, and floors,” Markham said. “I wanted to keep the hardwood floors, so they sanded the floors and polished them.”

The project cost over $200,000, which Markham said she could not have paid for on her own.

“I couldn’t afford a nail,” she said with a laugh.

Before the work, water was leaking through the roof and around some of the windows causing mold. Now, Markham, a widow, said she’ll be able to remain safely in her home for the foreseeable future.

“I’m not going nowhere,” she said. “I love my home.”

In addition to steering ARPA funds to the Healthy Homes Program, Sarno allocated $6 million to pay for exterior home repairs up to $40,000. The city has roughly 110 applications pending for that.

During dozens of listening sessions held in 2021 to solicit suggestions for spending the city’s $123 million ARPA allocation, Sarno said housing emerged as a top priority.

In addition to directing ARPA money into projects to develop new housing, Sarno said it made great sense to use it for preserving older homes.

“You look at the money we’re spending and some of the repairs (both) exterior and interior is going to build the equity in that home, but more importantly it is going to keep those individuals especially seniors in their home where they feel comfortable and where they’ve been for years,” Sarno said.

The money for the work is given to the homeowner in the form of a no-interest loan that is fully-forgiven after five years so long as the home is not sold during that time.

City Councilor Trayce Whitfield, who chairs the Council’s ARPA Oversight Committee and who has been highly critical of some of Sarno’s decisions on how to spend the federal windfall said the Healthy Homes Program was a great choice for ARPA funding.

“It helps our low-income seniors,” Whitfield said. “I have had so many seniors calling me saying they need this program because ‘we can’t afford to fix our porch, we can’t afford to fix our roof,’” Whitfield said. “The funding that went into it is great. I think I would have put in a little bit more.”

Under the rules set by Congress for the ARPA program, all monies must be allocated by 2024 and spent by 2026.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.