Renee Ceely Says Goodbye To Housing Authority After Nearly 30 Years

Jason Graziadei •

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Renee Ceely started with the Nantucket Housing Authority when the organization didn’t own a shed for its lawnmower, and “affordable housing” was considered a dirty term on the island.

It was nearly 30 years ago, and Ceely was at the head of the fledgling agency that had just been granted 20 acres of land between Surfside Road and Miacomet Avenue to develop into affordable housing. At the time, the Housing Authority was the only island agency tackling the burgeoning affordable housing crisis.

On Friday, sitting in her office on Manta Drive overlooking the now-developed 20-acre property that provides housing for hundreds of Nantucket residents, Ceely reflected on her nearly three decades at the Housing Authority with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Ceely is stepping down as executive director of the Housing Authority this month to take a job with the Egan Maritime Institute.

“The town granted to the Nantucket Housing Authority back in 1984 these 20 acres out here between Surfside and Miacomet Road, and we fulfilled everything that they promised Town Meeting that we would do,” Ceely said. “So it’s a mixed bag. I’m excited about my new job. Maritime history is a passion of mine. My husband was an oyster farmer and the harbor I like to describe as my therapy. Everything about the waterfront I love.”

Ceely presided over the Housing Authority as it grew from managing an initial 10 one-bedroom units for elderly and disabled island residents into a large community of low-income rental units on Benjamin Drive and Norquarta Drive, along with the mixed-income home-ownership 40B development of Sachem’s Path.

“When I started, the Housing Authority had nothing, we didn’t even have a closet to put the lawnmower in,” Ceely recalled. “(Former Nantucket Planning Director) Bill Klein and myself had attempted numerous times (at Town Meeting) to have something to create affordable housing or redo the zoning bylaws to create more incentives for people to create things that were more affordable. A lot of them failed. Affordable housing was a dirty word. There was a jealousy: I did it so you should be able to do it.”

But slowly over the years, those attitudes began to change.

Ceely helped the Housing Authority secure its first donated structures from Baxter Road, worked to create the housing covenant program, and assisted with the formation of NHA Properties Inc., the non-profit that would become Housing Nantucket. And she was among the leaders who continued to push for a home rule petition that would allow the Housing Authority to use its resources to house not just low-income residents, but also those making up to 150 percent of the area median income in what would become the 40-unit Sachem’s Path neighborhood.

The key, Ceely said, was to bring various stakeholders and community groups together to build consensus.

“We weren’t going to accomplish anything in affordable housing unless we got housing advocates to work with conservationists and to work with preservationists,” she said.

While the work of the Housing Authority has been largely completed, Ceely acknowledged the housing crisis persists, though she is encouraged by the town’s heightened focus on the issue over the past five years.

“It’s headed in the right direction,” Ceely said. “The funding that has been applied for through Town Meeting has been a huge success.”

Last Wednesday she was among the featured speakers at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Habitat for Humanity’s three new affordable units off Benjamin Drive, a fitting conclusion to her nearly three decades at the Housing Authority.

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