Lowell Week in Review: July 5, 2015

2014-15 City Council. Photo by Jen Myers

With no city council meeting on the Fourth of July holiday, this was a quiet week in Lowell politics.  It was also the halfway point of 2015.  This week I’ll take a step back and take a broader view on two fronts: the upcoming city election and the Lowell real estate market.

City Council election

The late Paul Sullivan used to say that from the 4th of July until Labor Day, candidates in a Lowell election would be better off campaigning at Hampton Beach than in the city because so many residents spend their summer at the seashore.  While I don’t think that is entirely true, it does make the valid point that many tune out politics during the summer.

The big question in the council race is whether Jim Milinazzo and Bill Martin will run for re-election.  The other seven incumbents have all kicked off their reelection campaigns as far as I can tell.  School Committee member Dave Conway is running for the council this year.  Given his past electoral performance and the relative intensity of his campaign, he would have to be considered a strong contender.

Former City Councilor Vesna Nuon is also running as is Paul Ratha Yem who sought the Democratic nomination for the 18th Middlesex Representative district last year.  Another Cambodian-American resident, Cheth Khim, also plans to run for city council.  A few weeks ago some lawn signs for Jordan Gys for City Council popped up in the Highlands.  Here’s how Gys introduces himself on his website:

Having been born in Lowell and having spent much of my life here I have come to love this city I call home. Having helped organize Lowell for the Baker – Polito campaign I have spoke with many of Lowell’s citizens and heard their thoughts and concerns. I found I shared in their optimism for our future as well as the desire to be better. I decided to run for city council because I love Lowell and while I respect the work our current city council has done I believe success is never final. As a millenial I will bring fresh and innovative solutions to solving our cities problems. Ahead of me is a long and difficult journey. But I strongly believe at the end of that road is not only a better future, but a better Lowell.

I assume there will be other candidates.  [Ed. Note: There is at least one other: Former councilor Joe Mendonca plans to run this year which I inadvertently omitted from my initial post].  Sorry if you are one and I’ve missed you.  Please leave a comment if you’re already in or are planning to join the race.

As for the outcome of the race, I would say that any incumbent that runs is in pretty good shape.  I’m not seeing any of the challengers making the case for change; they’re running “I’d be a good councilor, too” types of campaigns.  More importantly, it seems the Lowell Sun is quite content with the direction of the city.  The Sun is certainly not monolithic in driving community sentiments, but the newspaper does carry an outsized influence with the majority of the 10,000 or so people who regularly vote in city elections.  That group is older, whiter and more conservative than is the city at large.  In other words, it’s the core demographic of the Sun.  As we saw in the last election with losses by Marty Lorrey and Vesna Nuon, the newspaper is still effective at negatively targeting incumbents but that doesn’t seem to be part of the plan this year.

School Committee election

Steve Gendron, Kristin Ross Sitcawich, Kim Scott & Jean Franco

Change to the city council may be a remote possibility at this point but change to the school committee is a certainty.  Three of the six incumbent committee members are not seeking reelection.  As noted above, Dave Conway is running for city council and just this past week, Kim Scott and Kristin Ross Sitcawich both announced they would not seek reelection to the school committee.  The other incumbents – Connie Martin, Jim Leary, and Steve Gendron – all appear to be running for reelection.

Two former school committee members, Bob Gignac and Bob Hoey, are both running as is Andy Descoteaux who just retired this year as a music teacher at Lowell High School.  First time candidate Kamara Kay is also in the race.  There may be others.  As with city council candidates, if you are running and I’ve omitted your name, please let me know.

With three open seats, it would not surprise me to see others jump into this race.  Normally a new candidate would have to have a campaign well underway by now to stand a chance, but having 50% of the seats of an elected board vacant of incumbents is not the normal circumstance.  Between the ouster of Superintendent Jean Franco, the selection of her replacement, the stalemate with the teachers union over a new contract, and the possibility of a new Lowell High School, there are plenty of issues to be discussed in the upcoming school committee race.  Whether they will be discussed or ignored is still open to question.

Hamilton Canal District

Nothing new to report this week on the Hamilton Canal District.  A tweet by Banker & Tradesman this past Thursday did catch my eye.  It said “Trinity Financial Buys Two Dorchester Parcels for Transit-Oriented Housing Complex.”

Trinity Financial is the former Master Developer of the Hamilton Canal District that parted ways with the city (maybe it was the city that parted ways with Trinity) earlier this year.  Before that split became official, there was much grumbling about the lack of activity being shown by Trinity.  While such complaints were to be expected from some quarters, even some who were allies of Trinity were quietly expressing concern that the developer was focused on projects in other parts of the state rather than Lowell.

This recent news sort of corroborates that sentiment.  Here’s part of the story about Trinity’s efforts in Dorchester:

Boston-based Trinity Financial has completed its acquisition of two parcels in Dorchester’s Peabody Square where an 81-unit mixed-income residential complex is expected to break ground in early 2016.  The six-story development at the Ashmont Tire property will include 39 condominiums and 42 apartments, said Kenan Bigby, vice president for Trinity Financial.  All of the rental units will be reserved for qualified affordable tenants, with a 50-50 split between those earning no more than 100 and 80 percent of the area median income. Four of the condos will be income-restricted. The project also includes 4,000 square feet of retail space.  Trinity paid $3 million to acquire the parcels at 1961-1987 Dorchester Ave. and 4 Fuller St. on June 26, according to Suffolk County Registry of Deeds records.

Here’s a story from the Globe from a year ago about a Trinity Financial mixed-use development in Dorchester and here’s one from last July that was in the Dorchester Reporter about Trinity’s efforts in Dorchester.

As I mentioned in last Sunday’s post, it does seem like the new Lowell Courthouse is on track with the extension of Jackson Street to occur this summer and a courthouse ground breaking expected in 2016.  What to do with the tour buses that visit Lowell National Historical Park still seems to be a roadblock, but City Manager Murphy stated at a council meeting earlier this month that he would soon move to “Plan B” if the city was unable to reach some agreement with the LRTA about parking these transient buses on Hale Street sometime soon.  My guess is that if the bus parking isn’t resolved by Labor Day, the city will begin implementing another option.

Lowell Real Estate

Earlier in June there were several million dollar real estate deals I wrote about previously.  The month ended on a quieter note but the end of June also signaled the half way point in 2015 so now is a good time to look at some trends in real estate.  The market in Lowell does appear to be strengthening.  The number of Lowell deeds recorded in June was up 20% from June 2014 (463 in June 2014; 556 in June 2015) and the number of mortgage recorded was up 33% (695 o 927).  The number of deeds recorded came on strong in June because pervious months had shown a drop from the prior year.  For the first six month of 2015, the number of Lowell deeds recorded was down 2% from the same time in 2014 (2227 down to 2186).  The number of mortgages was up considerably, increasing 39% in the first half of 2015 when compared to the same time in 2014 (3039 to 4212).

Home values seem to have flattened.  The Lowell Assessors track sales by type of property (residential, commercial, etc) while the registry of deeds just has overall sales without regard to usage, so the assessors would have more accurate data.  Still, information derived from deeds being recorded is useful to help paint the bigger picture.

Tossing out deeds of less than $50,000 or more than $1 million, the median price of a property sold in Lowell during the first half of 2015 was $210,000.  That’s a 1% increase from the 2014 median which was $208,167.

Using the same formula, here is the median price of property sales in Lowell on a year by year basis with the percentage change from the previous year shown in parenthesis:

2000 – $140,000
2001 – $162,000 (+16%)
2002 – $187,375 (+16%)
2003 – $217,000 (+16%)
2004 – $238,600 (+10%)
2005 – $254,900 (+7%)
2006 – $247,000 (-3%)
2007 – $225,000 (-9%)
2008 – $184,900 (-18%)
2009 – $178,500 (-3%)
2010 – $180,000 (+1%)
2011 – $170,000 (-6%)
2012 – $175,000 (+3%)
2013 – $195,000 (+11%)
2014 – $208,167 (+7%)
2015 – $210,000 (+1%) January thru June

The good news from these numbers is that if you bought your home in 2000, its value has increased by 50%.  The bad news is that if you bought it between 2003 and 2007 (or refinanced and extracted equity), there’s a very good chance you are “underwater” on your mortgage, meaning you owe more than the property is worth.  That’s fine as long as you are able to keep making your monthly mortgage payments.  The problem occurs when your income is disrupted, usually by illness, divorce, death, or some other change of circumstances.  With less income, mortgage payments are missed and you are on the road to foreclosure.

While the end-of-June and midyear statistics for deeds and mortgages look good, the number of foreclosures are up, too.  In June, for instance, the number of foreclosure deeds rose 1000% from the previous June.  That startling statistic is less onerous when you consider that last June there was just a single foreclosure while this June here have been eleven.  For the half-year, the increase was 37% (35 rising to 48).

Friday on the LowellDeeds blog, I took a closer look at rising foreclosures throughout Greater Lowell.  What I found tended to corroborate that current foreclosures represent the residue of the housing bubble and its bursting and are do not involve newer, post housing market collapse mortgages.  Here’s some of what I wrote on the LowellDeeds blog:

Four of the mortgages that were foreclosed were obtained at the same time the property was purchased.  One was from 2003, two from 2005, and one from 2006, with down payments of 5%, 11%, 25% and 25%).  Two other mortgages were on properties that had been received by the borrowers as gifts.  One was a $283,000 mortgage from 2004 on a property that was obtained in 1989 for $1; the other was a $287,000 mortgage from 2014 on a property that was obtained in 2009 for $1.

The eight remaining mortgages all involved refinancings in which the borrower had purchased the property earlier with another mortgage, but then obtained a new, post-purchase mortgage which is the one that was foreclosed.  The following list shows the dates and amounts of the mortgages, followed by the dates and amounts of the purchase deeds:

  •  2003 mortgage of $215,000; 1998 deed of $158,000
  • 2004 mortgage of $252,000; 2003 deed of $265,000
  • 2005 mortgage of $185,000; 1999 deed of $97,000
  • 2005 mortgage of $280,000; 2001 deed of $305,000
  • 2005 mortgage of $222,000; 2004 deed of $278,000
  • 2007 mortgage of $389,000; 2005 deed of $360,000
  • 2007 mortgage of $339,000; 1996 deed of $153,500
  • 2009 mortgage of $348,000; 2004 deed of $175,000

2 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: July 5, 2015

  1. Kathleen Marcin says:

    The HCD is just outside my door; this Dorchester development is just a few blocks from my daughters house. The Ashmont area has seen tremendous redevelopment over the past 8-10 years. The Richards family (Denise was secretary of the Ashmont Adams Neighborhood Association) were catalysts for the additional T access on the opposite side of Ashmont Station which greatly improved access for those on the Gallivan/Adams side of the tracks. The old “Ashmont Grill” was equivalent to a neighborhood diner and is now a high-end restaurant with 1-hour wait times. There are several other longtime businesses that have been given an upgrade. Lower Mills is reminiscent of our downtown; old Mills converted to condos (although these are within a few blocks of Milton and T-station, hence astronomical prices) and a small business district.
    All-in-all this is the transportation hub atmosphere that Trinity sought to create in HCD. Too bad for us.

  2. DickH says:

    Regarding candidates for Lowell School Committee, one I omitted was Chris Roux who announced his candidacy back in March. I was reminded of my omission when he rang my doorbell I short time ago. My first task was to sign his nomination papers which were filled with signatures of others on my street. Then we had a great conversation about the reasons he’s running for School Committee. Foremost among them is that his three children are all currently students in the Lowell public schools. He is also a lifelong resident of Lowell (grew up in the Highlands; lives now in Pawtucketville). He’s also married to a Lowell teacher. While that relationship will prevent him from negotiating contracts should he get elected, it will also provide him with some valuable insight into the challenges faced in the classroom everyday. I’m looking forward to hearing more about Chris and his campaign.

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