A Woonsocket street is reborn

It was the worst of Woonsocket streets. Lined with boarded up mill houses, weeds sprouting from sidewalk cracks, Lincoln Street was a neighborhood in decline.

Once, the tenements teemed with workers. Four families at a time crammed into the homes, built between 1865-75. Even after the nearby Globe Mill closed in the 1930s, working residents continued to live there. But that changed when the state banking crisis struck.

Woonsocket’s Marquette Credit Union, which financed the partnership that owned the houses, collapsed. DEPCO took over the buildings’ management. By 1993, the houses were vacant.

But in these abandoned homes, a local investor saw opportunity.

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The city in 1996 issued a Request for Proposal to rehabilitate the buildings. It wanted them to be owner-occupied, affordable, and historically correct. All of this suited Robert S. Jensen, president of Lincoln’s Excel Management Inc.

Jensen used the federal 203K program — in which the government insures the mortgage — to buy the houses. The city used $642,553 of its U.S. Housing and Urban Development home funds to subsidize him, and Jensen rehabbed the houses for $130,000 each and sold them at a profit for $94,000.

Each house sold within three weeks. Buyers — who must meet income eligibility requirements — had their closing costs paid by the city. Also, under a special program, the new owners were exempt from property taxes for one year. In their second year they pay 20 percent of their bill. It increases by 20 percent each of the next four years.

Now, the neighborhood is alive again. The homes, painted with pastel colors of pink, green, and yellow, are now duplexes. Each is historically accurate, right down to the rod iron fences and brass door knockers. In keeping with their nature, the entrances are on the side, rather than the front, of each house.

“This was probably the most blighted area in the city,” Jensen said, standing in the narrow street amid the homes.

The redevelopment has given low and moderate income people a chance at home ownership. Owners often live on the top floor and rent the downstairs to their family. The average mortgage is about $600 per month, Jensen said. Many never expected to have this chance.

“I love it,” said Wallace Mitchell, who moved there in 1997 from Elmwood Avenue in Providence. “Where I was coming from, the opportunity to purchase (a home) was a godsend.”

Having owners in the houses is considered at least as much for the city. After years of absentee ownership, the city decided to insist on owner-occupation, which is said to make for better neighborhoods.

“It was probably one of the areas that we took the most complaints about,” said Woonsocket Mayor Susan D. Menard. “When someone owns a home they have more of a tendency to keep it up. Pride in ownership is our theme.”

Complaints have dwindled since. With the street inhabited again, the bad element has been driven out, officials said.

“When you have vacant apartments you do attract vandalism and other forms of petty street crime — it’s a host for possible arson,” said police Capt. Normand A. Crepeau Jr., adding that since the renovation, “we haven’t had any calls at all for complaints.”

Part of it may be that residents, who all moved there around the same time, have created a community where none existed. Just a few years ago the area was a tax burden and fire hazard, officials said. Some even talked of changing the street’s name because of its reputation, Jensen said.

Now, the area is filled with people invested in the neighborhood.

“The people own more than just a structure,” said Dennis F. Luttrell, grants administrator for the city. “They own a piece of the community.”

Melissa Rouleau owns part of it. Sitting at her upstairs kitchen table on a recent Friday morning, an ornate ceiling fan swirling above, Rouleau said she thought it was “too good to be true,” when she heard about the Lincoln Street program, and that she could get a mortgage.

“It’s the best thing that could have happened to us,” she said. “The best part about it is it’s ours.”

To Jensen and his wife Denise, vice president of Excel, restoring the historic feel was important. Denise traveled widely, from Sturbridge Village, in Sturbridge, Mass. to Newport examining homes of this time period to decide the best color scheme, Robert Jensen said. The aluminum siding was stripped down to the clapboards. Coal-black period lamp posts now illuminate the street.

And in a neighborhood that had no shade, young trees, still supported by stakes and wires, now thrive along the street. What has happened in Woonsocket could be recreated in other Rhode Island cities, Jensen said.

“This (program) should be mirrored throughout the state,” he said. “It’s amazing what this city has accomplished.”

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