Amistad wins $916K for possible housing units inside St. Philip’s in Wiscasset

Could be ‘cherry on top’ of church’s mission; some church neighbors call for transparency
Fri, 03/24/2023 - 9:45pm

    Maine State Housing Authority on March 23 announced a $916,000 grant to Amistad to create 12 permanent housing units in Wiscasset. They would be upstairs at St. Philip’s Church, all single-room units, with shared kitchens and bathrooms, Amistad Executive Director Brian Townsend said in a phone interview March 23.

    “What we really expect it to be is workforce housing ... That design is becoming more and more popular everywhere, with the cost of housing rising. You sort of trade off one thing – you lose a little bit of your privacy (with) those shared spaces, but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper.” 

    He emphasized a lot must happen, from permitting, to securing a contractor, to complete the apartments by next winter – and Amistad would have to return the money if they are not done by then, he said.

    “Just getting the funding doesn’t guarantee that we can do it ... The community engagement will be real, and robust, and it will influence the outcome, positive or negative,” Townsend said. He was responding to Wiscasset Newspaper’s questions about neighborhood concern about not getting advance word this winter that Amistad and St. Philip’s were eying a possible short-term rental of space at the church for an overnight warming center to run through April 30 and are now eying the possible apartments.

    A $50,080 MaineHousing grant Amistad won for the temporary shelter led to a Wiscasset Newspaper article multiple neighbors later said was how they learned of that plan. Priest In Charge Thomas Junkert has said the vestry approved the plan the Sunday after MaineHousing announced the grant award.

    The proposed apartments upstairs have not gone to a vote of the vestry, but have been and will be discussed, Junkert shared Friday afternoon inside the church, in a group interview that included vestry member, Senior Warden and St. Philip’s member of nearly 40 years John Young, Townsend, Amistad Associate Executive Director Meredith Pesce and church member and pianist-organist Terry Heller, also a neighbor and a Wiscasset selectman. As a selectman, Heller said, “I want to see the community come together smoothly, on all the issues we look at. (This one) happens to be in my backyard.”

    Pesce said the church’s and Amistad’s relationship is intentional, thoughtful and bigger than any one project. “We have fully embraced everything that we have seen from St. Philip’s, because every single person we have met here is trying to make the world a better place.”

    Amistad’s application for the grant for the permanent housing lists St. Philip’s as a partner, “providing designated space to rent within their building for the purpose of this SRO (single-room occupancy) project. St. Philip’s provides a food pantry and a bargain basement clothing resource, which will be available to project residents.”

    The application states the grant “will support the creation of 12 Single Room Occupancy units for low-income residents of Lincoln County who were previously unhoused or who are facing imminent homelessness. Construction would begin soon after receipt of an award, and would be completed by October 2023, with residents moving into the new housing units in October and November of 2023.

    “Residents of Wiscasset, and of Lincoln County generally, are profoundly impacted by minimal employment opportunities, high rates of substance use, and a scarcity of affordable housing and of accessible recovery programming,” the application continues. “In addition to creating 12 affordable permanent housing options for this very vulnerable population, the housing project’s co-location with Amistad’s Lincoln County Recovery Center will create unique opportunities for unhoused individuals to connect to housing, and for newly housed individuals to access needed recovery resources and a community of support, while both the Lincoln Co. Recovery Center and Amistad’s Bath Recovery Community Center will be serving as access points” for one of the regional hubs MaineHousing’s press release said are part of the state’s effort to redesign its Homelessness Response System.

    According to the application, a 24-hours-a-week program coordinator, supervised by Amistad’s programming director, “would support the initial lease-ups of 12 tenants, manage lease renewals and the departure and entrance of new tenants, provide various individual supports to tenants (including supporting links to needed resources), and perform property management tasks including rent collection and property maintenance.”

    The grant would go to the construction to repurpose that space, and would support operations “until the rents ... allow this staffed project to be self-supportive,” the application said. It does not state any funds St. Philip’s would receive in connection with the project. The church will get about $5,000 a month during construction and anything money-wise after that has yet to be negotiated, Townsend said.

    The warming center opened at the Hodge Street church March 6. Asked how it has been going, Townsend called it a success: Six “unduplicated” guests had used it, no nights had reached capacity, one night had no guests, the busiest night had three, and most had one or two. The warming center will close April 30, as planned, he said.

    The temporary shelter has added to Amistad’s awareness of housing needs in Lincoln County, Townsend said; recently, Amistad learned about the large space upstairs, roughly 90 by 30 feet, and soon after applied for the housing grant, he said.

    Told March 23 about Amistad’s new grant for permanent housing units at the church building, neighbor Karen Sullivan said: “St. Philip’s vestry has been made aware of the neighborhood concerns. They have set up a meeting, but it seems they have unilaterally made decisions once again without informing the neighborhood. And that doesn’t generate trust or confidence at all.”

    Townsend said he responded to an email from Sullivan and will respond to anyone else who has questions. 

    Amistad had to meet both grant programs’ tight time frames, Townsend said. “With the pace of it, there’s no way to have community engagement ahead of the process. It’s so fast.” As for the grant for permanent housing, he said, “That opportunity was sitting there as a rare possibility to do something that is fully funded, a construction project to create low-income, affordable housing, that wasn’t there before.” While pursuing the grant, there was not time to talk with neighbors, or with the town about “prospects for approval” and permitting, he said. When the grant was being sought, communication could have only been superficial, not meaningful, and would have been “selective,” Townsend said.

    “There’s a whole community ... If we selectively talked to just the people who ... say they want to be involved, we’re excluding a whole group of people,” he said. In Friday’s interview, Junkert concurred. There is nothing the vestry is trying to hide, he said. “We don’t know if it’s going to happen, because the vestry hasn’t decided, and there’s just a lot of steps,” including Maine Diocese of the Episcopal Church weighing in, Junkert said.

    If the vestry rejects the proposal, “it could be canceled,” Young said of the project. Heller said public hearings will be part of the town process. “Everyone is going to have an opportunity to speak about this.” During the interview, church and Amistad officials mulled the idea of forming an advisory committee for the project, and which they said could include community members.

    MaineHousing’s release stated more than 35 organizations applied, and a total of $16.3 million went to 17 of them. Each award depends on the applicant following through with the project, MaineHousing Spokesman Scott Thistle said via phone Friday. 

    If the church approves the project and all the other pieces fall into place, the project would continue, and solidify, the church’s mission that has long included leaving the building unlocked in case someone needs a place to go, Junkert and Young said.

    “In a way, this would just be the cherry on top in terms of what this church has been about,” Junkert said. “So why not pair and partner with Amistad, who has the same kind of values as we do?”

    Said Townsend, “We are truly hopeful that this is going to be considered of real value to the community. And we’re also eager to talk with everyone about it and get people’s buy-in. A lot of people either know someone or are themselves someone who at some point could have used a spot like this. We feel lucky to be able to do it.”