Empty Historic Buildings + Affordable Housing = A Win for Maine Towns
When my kids were young they went to elementary school across from Pineland in New Gloucester. This was before the Libra Foundation bought it from the state and fixed it up into the beautiful campus that exists today. Pigeons flew in and out the buildings’ broken windows, and ghosts of people who’d been locked up there- some wrongly, like the Malaga Island residents in 1912- roamed around the weedy lawns. Frankly, it was depressing and creepy, and I hated that that was the sight that greeted my kids as the bus pulled into their school every morning.
Maybe you have a building like that in your town or neighborhood? Maine has a lot of old buildings; it’s often said that we have some of the oldest housing in the country, as this map shows very clearly. Along with old housing come old buildings, like the churches, schools, and convents that the Catholic Church has closed due to shrinking membership, or the iconic old brick mill buildings of Lewiston, Biddeford, and other New England towns.
What do you do with old buildings like that? They carry a lot of memories and history. But they need a LOT of work- often there’s stuff like asbestos or lead paint that have to be removed by experts because they can make people really sick. That can cost a lot of money, and that’s before you add things like a new roof, heating, electrical, plumbing, windows, or other stuff that any 100+ year old building would need. And they need a new purpose- after all, the reason why they were built in the first place no longer exists.
Luckily, there’s one thing almost every community needs; affordable housing! And that turns out to be a great use for these old, empty buildings. Here are some reasons why:
They already exist- no need to pave over a favorite mea
They have “good bones”- they were well built in the first place, and they’re often beautiful. We want them to be fixed up and used, not torn down.
They’re often in or near town centers, which is where people want to live these days, because they can walk to jobs, stores, restaurants, or their dentist’s office.
A great example of this is happening right now in Biddeford; I was fortunate to have a tour recently from Guy Gagnon, Executive Director of Biddeford Housing Authority (BHA.) The Catholic Church closed St. Andre’s church in 2011 because there were too few members, not enough priests, and they couldn’t afford to maintain the buildings. A school that was part of the complex (in the upper left of the photo) had already been converted to 35 units of affordable senior housing, but the convent, the rectory, and the church sat unused for several years.
In 2013 the Biddeford Housing Authority bought the whole complex to create new housing and community centers. The convent will become 15 units of affordable “senior housing” (which means tenants have to be 55 years or older.) This is shot of the side of the convent was taken in June 2015. The renovation is isn’t done yet, but look how beautiful this building is! The arched windows, the brick work, and the detail under the eaves. Once it’s fixed up, who wouldn’t want to live in a place like this? Or live across the street from it?
The rectory’s 1st floor will become home to a community center that will include the offices of the Community Partnership for Protecting Children, the summer lunch program for kids, and other programs that help people in the surrounding neighborhood. A large kitchen will make it easy to hold events where food will be served. The upper floors will be converted to affordable housing, including at least one apartment for a large family, which are really scarce.
Plans for the church are still shaping up, but the spacious basement could be great space for a Boys and Girls Club- Biddeford doesn’t have one of these and there are lots of kids living nearby who could use a program like that.
In the main part of the church, one idea Guy Gagnon has suggested is that the pews be removed to create indoor play space. There’s room to have a ¾ size basketball court, or to play some indoor soccer. There’s plenty of natural light coming in the windows where the stained glass used to be. The space is also ideal for plays, concerts, and other community events, which could help to raise a little money to keep it all going.
This is just one example of how affordable housing can fill a big hole in communities. First, by providing good quality, affordable apartments for people priced out of the housing market. Secondly, by bringing new life to beautiful old buildings that help to define our communities. Sure, they’re not being used for their original purpose, but that’s so much better than having them be vacant and unloved, inhabited only by pigeons and old ghosts.