Sunday, July 27, 2014

Framingham's Gilbert Street turns around

By James H. Burnett III, Boston Sunday Globe, July 27, 2014

In late 2008, the Boston Globe examined a single block in a residential neighborhood near Waushakum Pond in Framingham that was especially hard hit by the housing and foreclosure crisis. We’ve recently revisited that block, which has bounced back, and offer the observations of residents, real estate experts, and municipal officials about what has fueled its recovery.

That “time heals all wounds” was originally a phrase in English literature about emotional rebuilding. But when Jeff Sjoberg says it of his tree-lined block on Gilbert Street near Waushakum Pond, he’s talking economic healing.

Sjoberg’s quiet street between Winthrop Street and Nipmuc Road is the very picture of real estate-related economic recovery, with every one of the 38 single-family homes and multiple-family rental properties on the block occupied, kept up, and all apparently in good standing with lenders and the town.

Jeff and Kate Sjoberg, outside their home at 11 Gilbert St. in Framingham, have played a role in the neighborhood’s rebound.

Just a few years ago that wasn’t the case.

In 2007, four properties — 11 Gilbert St., now owned by the Sjobergs; 25 Gilbert; 37-39 Gilbert; and 64 Gilbert — on this particular strip were headed for foreclosure, along with 945 other residential buildings in Framingham, representing roughly 1.3 percent of the town’s housing stock, and causing some real estate experts to declare the block a microcosmic example of the housing crash that was sweeping some area communities and many sections of the nation.

The back of 37-39 Gilbert St. in Framingham in 2008 after foreclosure. A neighbor said the construction on the back was illegally done, without proper permits

The porch of 37-39 Gilbert St. in 2008. The property was left abandoned for several years. Front windows had fallen in, house was unlocked, interior walls and ceilings were exposed to the studs. Parts of the floors were removed and open to lower floors. Numerous hazards jeopardized the safety of people entering the building such as the Framingham Fire Department.

The crash came so fast and forcefully that in 2008, Framingham’s Inspectional Services Department began more closely monitoring struggling properties to keep tabs on those at risk of falling into default and then foreclosure; 185 properties made the watch list that year.

Fast-forward to 2012, and the number of properties subject to foreclosure activity — including foreclosure petitions, auctions, and deeds — had fallen to 186, representing just 0.11 percent of the town’s housing stock.

Today, the Inspectional Services Department reports that 32 properties are on its watch list.

Town Manager Robert J. Halpin said part of the comeback is due to aggressive code enforcement that has improved property conditions across Framingham, but particularly in middle-class neighborhoods like the area around Gilbert Street.

“We also attribute the stabilization of housing values to the economic growth of Framingham and the MetroWest region,” Halpin said. “MetroWest continues to grow and attract a highly educated and skilled workforce due to the abundance of cutting-edge employers migrating to the region. Our neighborhoods are experiencing increased housing values and building permit applications for renovations, so it is fair to say that Framingham has successfully weathered the foreclosure crisis.”

Enter the Sjobergs.

“We had been looking carefully,” Jeff Sjoberg, 31 and a recent graduate of nursing school, said. “We wanted to remain in MetroWest, because we like the area, even though people assume that if you’re young you’re supposed to live in Boston proper. But we liked the feel of the region, and just needed somewhere where we could belong.”

The couple got their house for a steal — paying $162,000 to the bank that had foreclosed on it, compared with the $379,000 it had sold for in 2005 — and began fixing it up right away. They say, a bit sheepishly, that renovations are ongoing.

“We’ve done the work ourselves, going from room to room, and stripping out wallpaper, ripping out old carpet, and repairing the old hardwood, and that can take time,” said Kate, 29, who majored in historic preservation at the University of Mary Washington in Maryland.

Kate Sjoberg paints kitchen cabinets in her cellar. They have been rehabbing the house room by room, and have discovered original flourishes like hand-carved crown moldings and baseboards.

“We had already agreed that a fixer-upper was the way to go, because old homes like this have character and they don’t look like every other house on the block, as is the case with some of your newer, cookie-cutter subdivisions,” she said.

The Sjobergs had their hands full, however, after learning that their new house had been divided into three small apartments. But as they stripped away walls and removed other add-on accents, they discovered distinctive original flourishes like hand-carved crown moulding and baseboards.

“These are the kinds of things that make you embrace a home as your own,” Kate said. “Plus it made us feel invested in the block.”

The Sjoberg house at 11 Gilbert St. in Framingham.

It’s a block, Jeff Sjoberg said, that was quiet when he and Kate moved in, and today is bustling with children playing, lawn mowers roaring on Saturday mornings, and neighbors gathering at their backyard fence line to barbecue together and shoot the breeze after work.

“It’s night and day,” he said. “People didn’t talk to one another. Now it’s friendly.”

Didier Lopez, a longtime Framingham resident and RE/MAX realtor, recalls trying to sell another property on Gilbert Street in 2008.

“It was extremely difficult then. That home was about to be foreclosed on, and things were not looking good for the area,” Lopez said. “There was fear. Today it’s been replaced with investment, but it’s not just people investing to buy these homes. It’s a certain kind of person who is willing to buy, live here, and be involved — old fashioned, traditional, but a little modern too.”

Lopez, who said sales have picked up for him over the past three years, said many of his new clients, like the Sjobergs, are in their 20s and 30s.

“It’s all a domino effect,” he said. “Every time someone invests money or time it’s good for the overall economy in the region. But I’m seeing a lot more young professionals coming from the city. The big tech jobs are out here. And my job is easier because in addition to available housing, I can now tell young people that there are things to do.”

Lopez said when he’s showing houses these days, especially if his clients are young, he drives them around to show how many restaurants have sprung up on Route 9 in Framingham, how close they are to the Natick Mall and movie theaters, how many different ethnicities and cultures they’ll see in neighborhoods, how quickly they can drive from the heart of Framingham to the on-ramps to interstate highways.

“I said domino effect, right? Well, there wouldn’t be those things to do if real estate had not come back. That’s what I mean by one helps the other,” Lopez said.

Gilbert Street’s comeback isn’t all about a youth revival, though. Lopez also said long-term residents also helped move the recovery along.

Since 2008, the four homes at 88, 92, 96, 104 Gilbert Street were purchased by young couples with children.

78 Gilbert Street

“We needed the young people, the energy, the fresh faces,” Lopez said. “But neighborhoods like this needed the stability too, like home owners who didn’t run away when things were bad.”

George Lewis, 70, has lived at 78 Gilbert for more than 14 years. In 2008, the well known artist told the Globe that he was nervous about the foreclosures on his street, and what they meant to public safety and his ability to sell, should he ever decide to move. “It’s a different place today,” Lewis said. “All it took was a little time and people who wanted to be here.”

Click here to read the Globe article on December 18, 2008