WILLIAMSTOWN -- John Ryan of Development Cycles presented his final Housing Needs Assessment to a joint meeting of the Affordable Housing Trust and Affordable Housing Committee on Tuesday, May 7. The report investigates demographic and economic trends in the community, highlighting the needs of senior citizens and those who were living in the Spruces Mobile Home Park before flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 destroyed more than half of the park’s 225 homes.
The report was commissioned last December, shortly after the town applied for a FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant to decommission the park and help its remaining 66 households find alternative housing. The goal of Town Manager Peter Fohlin and members of various town committees has been to develop new affordable housing options that would allow those residents to remain in Williamstown.
The $6.13 million grant was approved in March, and once accepted by the Board of Selectmen, it will allow a three-year window in which to locate or develop new housing. Through the town’s agreement with the park’s owner, Morgan Management, $3.75 million of the $4.5 million the company recieves as part of the grant will be donated to the town and become available for the development of new affordable housing.
In February, Ryan presented his preliminary findings to the Affordable Housing Committee.
While much of the study focuses on the needs of people over the age of 65, it also looks at trends in the non-elderly and special-needs populations. Taken as a whole, the study paints a picture of a community with a declining job base (reflecting the county as a whole), that is growing older and wealthier, and where the costs of rentals and of homeownership have risen significantly since 2000.
"Existing conditions in Williamstown tell a somewhat confounding story," Ryan writes. "On the one hand, the community is losing population, losing local jobs, losing renter population and seeing far fewer young adults and children live in the community." In addition, waitlists for subsidized non-elderly rental units and Section 8 vouchers are almost nonexistent, and between 2000 and 2010 the rental vacancy rate nearly doubled to 11 percent.
"Were these the only indictors, housing funders would likely express serious concern that additional affordable units would negatively impact existing subsidized and market rate housing," he writes.
But other factors reveal a more complex situation. Rental prices in Williamstown are 30-60 percent higher than in Adams or North Adams, and the cost of owning a home is nearly double. Those increases are among the fastest in the state, he writes. The increase in household incomes is outpacing the increase in local wages.
The overall housing inventory is low, he adds, "while at the same time far more households, young and old, are increasingly burdened by the cost of ownership or rental. These conditions are typically present in expanding markets with high levels of housing need."
At the May 7 meeting, Ryan said that one of the challenges the town faces in developing new affordable housing is identifying the options that will realistically benefit the greatest number of people in the community.
Building multiple-family units could potentially bring back some of the non-elderly people who work in town but who have moved to neighboring communities, he said, "but I would say the simple demographics and the data that I was able to [find] leave me much more cautious about that." The best way to support young, first-time homebuyers, he said, would be through the Soft Second Loan Program, which is available to low- and moderate-income families throughout Massachusetts.
Ryan recommended the town focus its efforts on providing independent housing for single residents over the age of 65, since that is the greatest area of need, and will likely remain so in the near future. About 200 people who were living in their own homes pre-Irene would have been eligible, based on their age and income, for subsidized senior housing. Among those living in The Spruces in 2010, two-thirds qualified for senior housing.
"It doesn’t often score as highly in terms of the competitive nature of getting the available funding," Ryan said of senior housing developments, "but I think you can make a strong case that especially tied to the needs of The Spruces, there would be sufficient demand in the community to make that happen."
Ryan agreed with selectman Thomas Sheldon, who earlier in the meeting asserted that the biggest enemies of affordable housing are time and money. Although the Williamstown study was Ryan’s first experience in addressing the needs of a community affected by a hurricane, he has worked on a number of other projects associated with major property renovations. In many cases, he said, once people are forced to leave their homes, they do not return.
"Time and inertia and all those other things will have an impact," he said.
So far, at least 33 current and former Spruces residents have indicated a desire to move into new affordable housing in town, but Ryan believes that number will decrease with time. He also reaffirmed that among Spruces residents, the desirablity of new housing will depend largely on how closely it resembles their current neighborhood community.
Ryan recommended in the report that "From a strictly marketing perspective, the most desirable outcome for the largest segment of the Spruces population would be to replace The Spruces with [a] resident-owned and managed mobile home park in town. That option does not appear to be on the table at this time."
Town committees instead have endorsed the idea of developing small single-unit cottages that would approximate the neighborhood feel of The Spruces. Their focus has been on the 30-acre Lowry property on Stratton Road, which is under the control of the Conservation Commission and the subject of ongoing debate.
At two back-to-back Special Town Meetings on April 24, the town voted to table several articles relating to the property, so that further research could be carried out. The housing needs assessment will provide several missing pieces to the town’s efforts going forward and a general reference point for further discussion.
While Ryan agreed that individual cottages would meet some of the needs of the Spruces residents, he doubted that such a development would allow for ownership at an affordable level - another desirable feature of housing at the Spruces. One option for the cottages, he said, would be to create a mixed development with some rental units and some for sale. The rental units would qualify for low-income housing tax credits, he said, "and if you could amortize enough of the infrastructure costs, enough of the development costs, in the ownership portion of it, you could conceivably do some portion of rental in the same physical configuration."
But he admitted that the idea was entirely conceptual and that it would require a highly skilled developer to make it work.
"Other than that, I think you have to just do what you can get funded to do, which is to say, essentially, to make the pitch for a senior housing development that can serve as broad an income range as you can make happen, and hope for the best."
In response to a question from Sarah Gardner, a member of the Conservation Commission, Ryan said he could not recall ever having seen single-family units with low-income tax credits, but the only obstacle to such a model would only be financial. Tax credits would pay for half the development costs, he said, but the rest would need to be subsidized.
"For you to serve the population of the Spruces at something approximating what they were paying previously, you’re going to have to subsidize almost all of it," he said in regard to the mixed development model. "So the tax credits will not be enough in and of itself."
John Ryan’s Housing needs report is available at willimastown.ws.