Housing unit will build new Dot Ave. headquarters

The Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance is poised to break ground on a brand new classroom and office facility at 1803 Dorchester Avenue, the first time the organization will own its own property since beginning education programs for prospective homebuyers over 20 years ago.

"Our move to Dorchester mirrored our increasing neighborhood focus," said Thomas Callahan, MAHA's executive director, of the move they made to Dorchester from downtown about ten years ago. "A permanent home in Dorchester is really a sign of our commitment to homeownership in the neighborhoods."

Though a groundbreaking will be held tomorrow (Friday, June 8) construction is expected to begin in earnest in July. If all goes according to plan, the alliance's 11 employees will be able to move from the basement of St. Mark's school to the new building in March of 2008.

The three-story, 9,500 square-foot building is being built on the site of a home that MAHA rented as their headquarters for about ten years. Space in the rented home was always cramped, and in late 2005, the alliance began fundraising to build their own building on the site. The increase in classroom and office space, said Callahan, will allow the alliance to expand and diversify their homebuyer education programs.

"We hope over the next three to five years to grow the number of people we serve per year," said Callahan. Currently, about 1200 people attend MAHA classes per year: in the first five years in the new building, Callahan said the association hopes to push that enrollment over 2,000.

Already, there are 13,000 MAHA program 'graduates' who have achieved home ownership in the greater Boston area, and many of them will be asked to contribute to the ongoing fundraising effort. To date, the alliance has raised $2.75 million of their $3.5 million capital campaign goal, and as construction begins even before the total goal has been met, the alliance has turned to several new, simple, initiatives. One is reaching out to those alumni through mailings and phone calls, a second is house parties throughout the city hosted by supporters able to make generous contributions. One novel, if modest, approach is an actual MAHA piggy bank that makes an appearance at all the alliances classes and information sessions.

"This is not going to fund the campaign, but it shows people who are considering larger grants that there's passion in our membership base," said Callahan.

The capital campaign has not been an easy undertaking for MAHA, whose annual operating budget is under a million dollars. They have benefited greatly, said Callahan, from the help of Bob Sheridan, president and CEO of Savings Bank Life Insurance, who is serving as chairmen of MAHA's fundraising committee. Sheridan has drawn on his own contacts in the business world and beyond to help move the alliance towards their own home ownership.

"Our donors have been heavily in the banking and insurance industries, because those are the people we've worked with over the years, but also philanthropic foundations, and we're looking to expand that circle," said Callahan.

The new building at 1803 Dorchester Avenue will also include 1,700 feet of retail space on the first floor along Dorchester Avenue, a nod to the interest that St. Marks Area Main Streets has in the project as a partner in the development and ownership arrangement. Dan Larner, executive director of that Main Streets chapter, said their involvement in the project was key in securing tax credits to make the project viable.

"We were glad to do it both in terms of helping a program that has been so helpful to people in Dorchester and also because the new building makes a big impact on our business district because it could turn into the anchor of development in that part of our district," said Larner. People can see what's going on in Peabody square, how that is changing so fast and so much for the better, and the goal we've always had is to bring up the Avenue to the whole district, and this could be one of first major projects in that continuation."

The larger goal, said Callahan, is to give a permanent and visible face to an organization that has been helping others find a home for two decades.

"We have become a trusted advisor for a lot of first time homebuyers and I think the building is a way of kind of reinforcing that or trying to announce that to a broader array of prospective homebuyers in the greater Boston area," said Callahan.

The groundbreaking will be held tomorrow at 10 a.m. at the building site at 1803 Dorchester Avenue.