Jim Flanagan (L) and Ross Donald (R), candidates for Housing Authority/ Credit: Needham Observer

For the first time since 2020, voters will have options when it comes to choosing one of the five commissioners of the Needham Housing Authority (NHA) on April 9.

There will be two candidates for the five-year term: Ross Donald, who lost a bid for the seat in 2020, and first-time candidate Jim Flanagan. They are competing to succeed Eleanor Evans, who opted not to seek reelection after serving one term.

The election comes at a key juncture in the 75-year history of the NHA, as it has launched an ambitious plan to redevelop and/or renovate much of its current stock of 316 deeply affordable units, and possibly increase its inventory by almost one-third over the next decade.

The plan’s implementation will begin with the Linden/Chambers development, which consists of 152 units completed between 1959 and 1962 and considered near the end of their useful lives. A decades-long planning process has resulted in a proposed $80 million-plus project at Linden/Chambers. It calls for a phased demolition of the existing 23 buildings and 152 studio apartments, and replacing them with two four-story buildings, adding 95 one-bedroom apartments for a total of 247 units. 

The complexity of the project has led the NHA to engage an outside developer, the Cambridge Housing Authority, which has a track record of securing funds and completing affordable housing projects in other communities.

Candidates Flanagan and Donald both agree that the NHA facilities are in dire need of attention, but they have taken dramatically different positions regarding the current plans. Flanagan supports the demolition and replacement while Donald, who lives at the Linden complex, has long held the Linden/Chambers properties should be renovated, not demolished.

Donald is a former Town Meeting member from Precinct D who is seeking to return to Town Meeting this year after unsuccessful runs in 2022 and 2023, in addition to his bid for a seat on the Housing Authority. In his professional career, he worked with community development groups such as the Back of the Hill CDC, planning and developing housing units, and also on planning, writing and delivering guidelines for builders and developers.

“The essence of my campaign is to save community housing in Needham,” Donald said. “I’m against the demolition of public housing, both conceptually and physically.”

Donald stresses his status as a tenant as a primary qualification. “I think the most important thing I have to offer that’s distinctive is living here. I have direct information, knowledge. We’re the ones that are making it better.”

“And I can’t talk about a solution unless we talk about tenant participation.”

Donald has repeatedly and sometimes heatedly stated his opposition at many of the public discussions of the project. Speaking as a tenant, Donald said, “We’re interested in the maintenance. They (the NHA) apparently aren’t. Because if the place gets more deteriorated, that goes to their argument of ‘Well, we need to tear it down.‘“

Asked if he was accusing the NHA of intentionally neglecting maintenance to let the facilities deteriorate, Donald replied, “Absolutely. Those are the results.”

Another tenant who is already on the NHA, Janice Bennett, supports the replacement approach. NHA Chair Reg Foster says renovation was considered but has long been disregarded as a “non-starter.” 

“It’s a highly expensive and inefficient way of using land,” said Foster. “The costs of trying to gut renovate Linden Street was a total non-starter. There’s really no possibility of doing anything like that.”

Flanagan, by contrast, offers a background in finance and public policy, along with a longstanding interest in supporting affordable housing, most recently as a member of the Needham Housing Coalition. He has been a Town Meeting member from Precinct G since 2022.

“I am running because this presents a really interesting challenge in all the positive ways,” he says. “With the Preservation and Redevelopment Initiative, there are a lot of moving pieces and parts — financially, operationally and from a construction standpoint.”

Prior to moving to Needham nearly 20 years ago, Flanagan was a commercial real estate lender in Chicago and managed a portfolio that included rental properties. He also served as an appointed member of the Chicago Public School Board and currently works as strategic consultant with a focus on social impact in the areas of education, employment and housing.

“I understand what it means to be on a board and to report to a board,” he said. “And I understand the complexity of public private partnerships and large projects.”

He acknowledges that the project, especially the funding mechanism, is complex but he says it’s a realistic project. “I base that on the fact that the Cambridge Housing Authority has done this before. And that’s why having them as a partner in this has been so critical.”

NHA Plans

The NHA formally announced its Preservation and Redevelopment Initiative (PRI) in 2021 and has done extensive pre-development work supported by nearly $1.4 million in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds. Over the past year it has advanced its longstanding plans and will be seeking zoning changes at Town Meeting in May that are needed for the first phase of the initiative, the project at Linden/Chambers. 

NHA Chair Foster has presented the NHA’s plans at more than 40 public meetings, including those held by the Select Board, Planning Board, Finance Committee, Community Preservation Committee and Board of Health, in addition to discussions at NHA meetings and other public forums.

The town also has established a new committee, the Town-financed Community Housing Oversight Committee, to oversee the spending of the CPA funds allocated to the project.

In May, Town Meeting will vote on four separate warrant items related to the plans, including two zoning amendments and $5.5 million in additional CPA funding that will eventually be used to pay construction costs.

That $5.5 million in CPA funding will be contingent on the NHA receiving upwards of $75 million from more than a dozen funding sources. This has come to be known as the project’s “financial layer cake,” a complex mix of tax credit programs, permanent mortgages, state grants and soft loans that will leverage the town’s investment by a more than 10-to-1 ratio.

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