A thank you to Alex Elvin and The Advocate for digging for the important details on the issue of affordable housing, which Williamstown has been grappling with for many years. Your most recent article ("Adapting to uncertainty: Town refocuses post-Irene housing replacement efforts", Sept. 5) is good coverage of the evolution of town committee thinking, especially on how to handle the need to relocate the Spruces residents.
And a big thank you to Board of Selectmen Chair Jane Allen, and to the other selectmen, for leading the effort to actually get something done, by making two major, wise moves:
(1) Withdrawing a request from the Affordable Housing Committee to the Conservation Commission to give over the Lowry/Burbank properties, the last two sites of town-owned, in-town conservation/agricultural land, for building housing. Accomplishing such a housing development is not doable in the short time frame needed both to fulfill the FEMA grant requirements and to serve the Spruces residents - even in the highly unlikely possibility that the Conservation Commission would eventually, after long deliberation, give up its stewardship of the land, and the town is then willing to fund the development and jump through the hoops required by the state. Just as important, the widespread controversy that such a request has set off in town is a deterrent to the need of the town committees and citizens to work together.
(2) Promoting the rapid development of housing on the Williams College-donated property beside the present Proprietors Fields (the Southworth Street site) by potentially throwing the full support of the proceeds from the FEMA grant behind this project.
There is one final point this article discussed, on the longer-term need for building in-town affordable housing, that should be clarified. The message coming from meetings of the Affordable Housing Committee is that a lot more affordable and low-income housing will be needed. But we need to be more precise in considering the numbers needed and the cost to the town of this increased building. Let's consider first the relocation needs of the Spruces residents. Of the 185 surveys of Spruces residents distributed by the Higher Ground group, 103 were returned. Thirty-nine of these were not interested in living in town, and of the remaining 64, 30 residents said they definitely wanted to stay, while the other 34 said they were not sure they wanted to stay.
The John Ryan "Housing Needs Assessment" study, April 2013, commissioned by the Affordable Housing Committee, estimated that from 2015 to 2017, the number of these Spruces residents wanting to relocate to rental housing in town would decrease from 32 to 16. So, since one of the collaborating developers for the Southworth Street site, the Women's Institute, is suggesting building 40 units - the number they think investors would be willing to fund - that sounds like enough to serve both the Spruces residents who may want to move there in two or three years, and seniors in town who need affordable housing.
These 40 units, along with other sites now being considered seriously for affordable housing - Photech (50+ units), former Town Garage (46 units) - add up to nearly 150 units available as affordable housing possibilities in the next years. And the Cable Mills site will probably get funding in the next months, which will add another 52 rental units, both affordable and market-rate. So the market is going to be hit with 92 or so units in the immediate future.
The important question here, particularly for potential developers, is, what does the market tell us about how successfully these new units will be filled. In addition, the message from the housing market is that funding, from the federal, state and local levels, is tight and will get tighter, especially if sequestration continues into the coming year. This suggests that we need to focus as a town on the single best located project, most likely to be funded by the state, in the shortest amount of time. That is the Southworth Street project. Stan Parese, Chair of the Affordable Housing Trust, agrees. He has acknowledged, in your article and in a meeting of Jane Allen's Spruces Roof Group committee, that he would not object to putting the other possible sites on hold. "This [the Southworth Street project] is the priority. Whether it's 40 or 60 or 30 [units], we're not getting them anywhere else in the timeframe that is relevant to the Spruces population. It's just not going to happen. We should just face that and get to work already."
Let's start right now, putting our efforts, will and funding sources behind this, uniting town committees and citizens.