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NSP work ramps up on East Side

New England Family Housing, in partnership with the city, is using federal funds to rehabilitate a number of Champlain Street properties at once. This one, which will be ADA compliant, should be finished in a few weeks. (Photo by Erik Eisele) (click for larger version)
June 09, 2010
BERLIN — From a third floor porch at the intersection of Grafton Street and Champlain Street it looks like New England Family Housing is rebuilding the entire city.

The porch is new, and the inside of the building has been gutted. New siding is up on one side, and the six unit building has a new propane heating system, sprinkler system and windows. Every apartment will eventually get new energy efficient appliances and tile floors. They replaced joists in the basement and added structural supports. The driveway will get paved as soon as the building next door gets demolished.

Across Grafton Street another building is crawling with carpenters, electricians and plumbers. They added an exit on the back side of the building, new decking to the porch and windows. The inside of this building has been gutted as well.

On the other side is a single family house, the first property NEFH rehabbed with federal money from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program money. It got new floors, new appliances, a new heating system, a new fence, new insulation and more. The grass in the back yard is just sprouting, and pavers will be there any day to finish the driveway.

Up the road is another property in the process of getting sheetrocked. One unit will be handicap accessible, with large doors, low light switches and a big bathroom. The new retaining wall, which will expand parking area, is in the process of being built.

"This area is going to change," Tim Coulombe, NEFH director of operations in Berlin, said.

He stood on the porch at 97 Grafton St. and pointed out several other buildings NEFH owns that will get similar treatment in coming months. When the house on the other corner is done, he said, the contractor will move to the one on the other corner. The next one up the city will take down, he said, and the one beyond that NEFH will do shortly after. Across the street is another one, he said, which got a new roof but they haven't started on yet.

But they will.

"From boarded up windows to this," Tony Smith said, waving his arm toward the shell of 97 Grafton St. He coordinates the work, the contractors and the construction for NEFH, a full-time job. He is living in 610 Champlain St., the first property NEFH rehabbed, while serving as the general contractor.

"Pretty much rebuilt from the bones," Mr. Coulombe said.

There are probably 30 people working on the three Champlain Street properties NEFH is rehabbing at any given time, Mr. Smith said, and 90 percent of them are local.

There are a dozen trucks with ladder racks parked on the street, pulled up on sidewalks and in driveways. NEFH has until March 2013 to spend roughly $2.7 million, and with all the work going on right now it looks like they are on their way to their goal.

All of the contracts need to be awarded by September of this year, Mr. Coulombe said, and they expect to finish well in advance of the 2013 deadline.

They are doing what needs to be done and more, he said, to turn these buildings into quality properties. Ultimately the goal is to improve the entire lower East Side neighborhood.

"Two weeks from now it's going to look a whole lot different," he said, referring to 97 Grafton. As NEFH goes down the road, he said, they are doing more than just slapping on a new coat of paint. "We're trying to make them bulletproof," he said.

NEFH is going to own the properties for at least the next 25 years, as part of the requirements of the grant. They don't want to have to go in and rehab apartments every time a tenant moves out, Mr. Coulombe said, so they are doing it right the first time. They are putting sprinkler systems in buildings that don't require them, he said, and tile floors in kitchens and bathrooms, to ensure their investments last.

"Once it's done," said Kevin Lacasse, one of the owners of NEFH, they want to bring the mayor down to check out what they've done. "I think he'll be pleasantly surprised."

Garnett Hill
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