WILLIAMSTOWN -- The Affordable Housing Committee meeting on Feb. 12 in many ways marked a step forward in the town's efforts to provide additional housing options for elderly and low-income residents. John Ryan of Development Cycles presented the preliminary findings of his housing needs assessment, plans to remediate the site of the former Town Garage on Water Street moved forward, and committee member Charles Bonenti announced his initial research into loans, grants and rent programs in the area.
But as the town awaits the results of its 2012 application for a FEMA Hazard Mitigation grant, which would allow it to purchase the flood-damaged Spruces Mobile Home Park from Morgan Management for $600,000 and help the park's current residents relocate, those currently living at the park and those who were forced to relocate after Tropical Storm Irene in 2010 face new uncertainties.
After Irene, only 68 of the 225 homes at The Spruces remained habitable or salvageable, and more than 150 people needed to find alternative housing. Most of those people left Williamstown, where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $835 - slightly above the range of affordability as determined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Many of the households whose homes were damaged by the storm received a one-time $32,000 FEMA grant following the disaster, and a number of those who were forced to relocate have been receiving ongoing FEMA assistance. But the 18-month period for receiving that assistance will end on Feb. 28, leaving an unknown number of people in need of new sources of funding.
At this point it is unclear whether the funding sources identified by Bonenti on Feb. 12 will be available for that purpose.
Susan Puddester, co-chair of the Higher Ground Disaster Replacement Committee, did not know exactly how many former residents were still relying on the ongoing grants, or where they were living. Based on a mailing list compiled last year, however, she said that only 18 of the households that were displaced from the Spruces had obtained other housing in Williamstown. Another eight households had moved into long-term care facilities.
According to Carol Zingarelli, a Spruces resident who like many others struggled to find housing after Irene, said that some of those people are still living in hotels, and she anticipates "a great need for some help after Feb. 28," for those living above their means.
Puddester said that "Higher Ground does have some money available, as we have all along, to help people who might have unmet needs that are related to specifically Tropical Storm Irene," and that the group's allocation of case-by-case assistance will continue, drawing from the group's initial funds that were raised after the storm.
"Currently we don't have any fundraising plans," she said. "We're going to really have to see what the need is. So we may find that every one is pretty much OK where they are, or may find that there are a lot of folks who still need some help."
Suitability and affordability
A further uncertainty, perhaps intensified by the town's recent plans to begin remediation of the site at 59 Water St. (one of the original targets for housing development) is that of whether new housing in Williamstown will be a suitable alternative to the type of neighborhood living found at the Spruces. For many residents there, the shape of new development will determine whether or not they remain in Williamstown.
The three main sites being considered for development are the Lowry property on Stratton Road, which has been in conservation since the 1990s; the site of the former Town Garage on Water Street; and the site of the former PhoTech Mill on Cole Avenue, which is being studied by the environmental engineering firm Tighe and Bond to determine the feasibility and safety of family housing in light of contamination found in the soil.
Higher Ground is continuing to negotiate with Williams College, which owns a potential site for affordable housing development near Proprietor's Fields.
At this point, housing designs are merely conceptual, but designs for the Lowry site - created by local Ann McCallum of Burr and McCallum Architects - include small, single-family units similar to those at the Spruces. For that reason, many people believe that the Lowry site offers the greatest hope in reestablishing the kind of neighborhood community that currently exists at The Spruces.
Many of the park's residents are reluctant to move into apartments, having lived for so long in their own homes (so they do not favor living at the Water Street site, which would most likely consist of multiple-family units). And although conceptual plans for the PhoTech site include single-family units, residents are understandably concerned that two corners of the site lie in a floodplain (although housing would likely not be built in those areas).
Margaret Harwood, a long-time Sprucian, hopes that the town's new housing development will be comparable to her current living situation, where her friends are nearby and there is a sense of freedom. "I would like to have the same amount of space and I'd like to have a way to walk around and feel free to walk around in your neighborhood, just like we do now," she said.
Being able to have pets and for young family members to visit are also high among many peoples' priorities for new housing.
In the wider community, opponents to the Lowry proposal argue that the elderly or disabled would have trouble making the almost two-mile walk to and from the center of town, especially since the site is situated on a hillside. But according to Peggy Roth, a senior citizen who had not anticipated having to relocate from the Spruces, "It doesn't matter at all. It's just the idea of having your own place and something you can maintain and take care of, because I will not go into an apartment."
"One thing we know is we don't want to stay at the Spruces," said Loretta Martin, another long-time Spruces resident.
A false division
The willingness to relocate - either to the Lowry property or elsewhere - is not shared by everyone living at the Spruces.
Since early December 2012, a group called Save the Spruces, which has about 12 active members, has argued that Spruces residents would be better off purchasing the park themselves and running it as a cooperative.
According to one online news report, Town Manager Peter Fohlin has acknowledged the group's legal right to do so, as outlined in the state's manufactured housing community laws, and has stated that the town will not interfere in the group's efforts to form a cooperative, raise funds and purchase the park from Morgan Management.
Peter Russell, chairman of Save the Spruces, was unavailable for comment.
Spruces resident Cynthia Claremont-Rebello and many others believe strongly that the group's efforts, while perhaps understandable, are short-sighted, and threaten the community's chances of being able to relocate to safer ground.
In response to the group, Claremont-Rebello and others have become more vocal in their support of the town's affordable housing efforts and in their criticism of Save the Spruces.
In 2010, when Morgan Management pushed for a rent increase, said Claremont-Rebello, she and the park's rent control committee "did a lot of homework and know exactly what it costs to maintain that place. And with 68 rents coming in, there is no way that they're going to be able to make that mortgage. Even if they went way up on the rent, there's no way they're going to do it."
She said that Save the Spruces has not done a feasibility study regarding the purchase and maintenance of the park.
The group would also face the costs of demolishing and removing the park's many condemned structures, and of maintaining the park's infrastructure, which some Sprucians say has been neglected since the 1960s.
According to Massachusetts general housing laws, said Claremont-Rebello, "in order for them to buy it as a cooperative, they would have to have 51 percent of the [households] not only sign their name to a $600,000 mortgage, but sign that they are responsible to see that all of those bills get paid - taxes and everything else - and they cannot get 51 percent of the people in there."
Charlene Blood, chairwoman of the Spruces Tenant's Association, said that 25 current park residents are in favor of using the FEMA money to relocate - either to the Lowry property or elsewhere. "There are more people who are kind of on the fence," she said, "and then you have the ones that definitely are for saving the Spruces. But those 25 people is a good amount."
The debate over whether or not to save the Spruces, said Claremont-Rebello, has been complicated by the fact that many of the group's members are not full-time residents and do not own their homes at the Spruces.
The main reason they don't want the town to receive the FEMA grant, she said, "is because 50% of them are summer residents. This is their second home, so they're not losing their primary home. Secondly, many of them are renters so they don't own the property." Those conditions would disqualify them from receiving the FEMA relocation funds.
"So because they're not getting anything, they don't want anybody to get anything."
Many residents used their initial $32,000 to repair or rebuild their homes, said Cathy Stoddard, whose home was damaged in Irene and repaired by her husband, David Stoddard, and others in the community. Because some residents received money and others did not, she said, the community has become somewhat divided into haves and have-nots - a division she said is false, since those who received grant money did not necessarily end up in a better position than those whose homes were intact after the storm and did not qualify for the grant.
Claremont-Rebello fears that if the town does not receive the Hazard Mitigation grant, "nobody in here will see a penny. Even though the Massachusetts law for Mobile Home Housing says that they [Morgan Management] have to pay us off, they'll lawyer up and have us in court for 20 years and some of us will be dead before we even see any money."
One thing nobody wants is to experience another Irene.
"I know that we all spent a lot of money to get back in," said Claremont-Rebello. "but in the back of our minds, we knew that a couple of years down the road we were not going to be there."
Voices of the minority
Perhaps the most difficult challenge faced by those living at the Spruces - and by other low-income people in the area - is the experience of being seen as outsiders in a more affluent wider community.
Recalling newspaper editorials in the aftermath of Irene and personal interactions over the last two years, many in the park feel that public opposition to affordable housing development - particularly at the Lowry property - reflects an underlying prejudice toward the town's low-income population.
Harwood said she has had several encounters with Williamstown residents whose disapproval of the Lowry proposal revealed a surprising degree of social insensitivity. Harwood said that one woman told her directly that she did not want one of her family members to have to see mobile homes when standing on her property.
"I get a lot of that," Harwood said, "and after a while it does get very stressful." She said many people in the community have the same attitude: "You can go to PhoTech or Water Street, but we don't want you in that nice open space up there."
She pointed out that plans for the Lowry site so far do not include actual mobile homes, but rather single-unit "Irene Cottages" developed by the Upper Valley Strong recovery committee in Vermont and New Hampshire following the storm.
Despite what negative attitudes may exist surrounding the changes occurring in Williamstown, those voices represent a minority, said Zingarelli. The dedication of the Affordable Housing Committee and other town residents who are working to make Williamstown a more inclusive place, she said, is deeply appreciated by most of the Spruces residents.
"This is really an exceptional community," she said. "And I really do think those people are in the minority, who feel that way, it's just that they are more vocal. And that's why it's more important for the other side to be heard."
Stoddard indicated that the issues coming to light because of the Spruces not only reflect the area's general need for affordable housing, but also point to the wider community's need to seek to better understand its members.
"This has been ongoing for 30 some years, and now it's coming to a head because of the Spruces," she said of the town's need for affordable housing. "And I understand people; I get it. If I build a million-dollar mansion, maybe I don't want to look at a mobile home But they need to understand what these people went through. It was like loosing a loved one. People don't understand it until you go through it.
"And I understand the people who want to save the Spruces" she said. "My heart breaks for them We all live there because we can afford to live there, and it was a wonderful, beautiful place to live."