Holyoke Mayor Earmarks Portion Of CDBG Funds For Fire Alarm Initiative

Apr 19, 2017

Three people died and another 50 people were displaced from their homes after fire destroyed an apartment building in Holyoke, MA on January 1, 2017.
Credit Holyoke Mayor's Office

   Mayors and local officials in Massachusetts Wednesday showed their support for the federal Community Development Block Grant program that has been proposed for elimination by President Trump.   A series of speakers, a slide show, and photo displays highlighted how CDBG money has been spent in Holyoke.

    The 90-minute program held in the auditorium of Holyoke City Hall began with breakfast prepared by culinary students enrolled in a social service agency’s classes for troubled youth. It ended with warm cookies from a food truck bakery business launched with the help of an entrepreneurial development initiative.  

   Both endeavors are partially-funded from the city’s annual CDBG program allocation, which this year came to just over $1 million.

   Mayor Alex Morse, a Democrat, said he and scores of other mayors across the country – including many Republicans – are calling on the Congress to maintain, or even expand, the popular CDBG program.

  "This is one of the only sources of funds that come directly from the federal government, bypasses state government, and comes to the local community, so that local elected officials and policymakers can make the decisions because we know our communities best and its needs," said Morse.

  Morse announced new CDBG funding awards to Habitat for Humanity and for financial incentives to landlords to install new, or upgrade existing, fire alarm systems.

  National Community Development Week has been observed for 15 years, but this is the first time Holyoke has marked it with an elaborate event, according to Alicia Zoeller, the administrator of the city’s Office for Community Development.

  " So today is a day of celebration and also realizing that the work must go on," said Zoeller.

  Like other cities across the country, Holyoke spreads its CDBG program funds around on multiple activities including public improvement projects, infrastructure repairs, and housing rehabilitation.  15 percent of the funds this year were divided among 35 local social service agencies.

  " We spend this money in a transparent, fiscally responsible manner," said Zoeller. " Sometimes you hear this money is targeted for poor people, but it benefits all residents of our community."

  Through a non-profit housing development corporation, partially funded from the city’s CDBG program, Sheila Velazquez and her husband became first-time homeowners. Velazquez, who moved to Holyoke from Puerto Rico 20 years ago, said it was the fulfillment of the American dream.

  "That is why I beg  with all my heart to reconsider and ( not cut the funds). Those funds are a great help and a great chance for people who just want a better life for their families," said Velazquez.

She and many of the other 100 people at the Holyoke event wrote comments about the CDBG program on a large poster that will be sent to the Massachusetts Congressional delegation.

  Morse said he is earmarking $270,000 for a program that will provide up to $10,000 to landlords to install, expand, or repair fire alarm systems in buildings with 10 or more apartments for low and moderate income tenants.

   The incentive program was recommended by a board of city officials following the deaths of three people in a New Years Day fire in a five-story apartment building.  Investigators said the building’s fire alarm system was not connected directly to the fire department headquarters and that delayed the emergency response by 10 minutes.

    " Building owners sometimes point to the cost as an impediment to the installation, so we thought about what we could do as a city to incentivize the investment in this," said Morse.

    The deadline for grant applications is May 30, 2017.