Editor’s Note: This is the first part in a planned series on affordable housing in Williamstown. See part two in the Feb. 7 issue.
WILLIAMSTOWN -- Since 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene left most of the Spruces Mobile Home Park underwater and many of its residents without homes, citizens here have buckled down to address the town’s long-term need for affordable housing.
The Williamstown Affordable Housing Committee and also Higher Ground, a group created to support the needs of Spruces residents and help them navigate the process of federal disaster relief, have taken the lead in the efforts to identify new options for low-income and elderly housing.
Several proposals for new development are currently on the table, and over the next several months, they will continue to be explored and refined.
The AHC is currently considering three sites for development: A portion of the Lowry property on Stratton Road, the site of the Old Town Garage on Water Street, and the former site of the Photech Mill on Cole Avenue Development at one or more of the sites is expected to begin within five years.
None of the proposed locations alone offers enough space to meet the goal (laid out in Williamstown’s 2002 Master Plan) of affordable housing making up 10 percent of the town’s total housing.
In addition to the three sites being looked at by the AHC, Higher
"We need to build on all four of those," said Catherine Yamamoto, chairwoman of the Affordable Housing Committee. "And if we do, then that will begin to address the need. It won’t even meet the need, but it will begin to address the need."
In the Northern Berkshires, affordable housing development has been at a standstill for more than 10 years, said Jim Canavan, who has overseen housing projects throughout the state, including the Gordon Mansfield Veterans Village, a cooperative housing development in Pittsfield that was constructed by the non-profit group Soldier On, which provides support for homeless veterans.
Veterans Village is a limited-equity cooperative, meaning each resident owns a share of the cooperative, and the cooperative itself owns the property. Although it’s too early for planners to know if the Williamstown projects will take a similar direction, Veterans Village is a good example of how state funds can contribute to affordable housing.
Acquiring funds for housing development is a complicated process that can take several years. While there are a number of state financing options in Massachusetts, it usually takes a combination of those - in addition to bank loans, tax revenue and donations - to move a project forward. Veterans Village had at least nine separate funding sources, Canavan said, each with its own requirements.
"We put the deal together in such way that there’s hardly any debt, which is really unusual for one of these projects. Usually most of your financing is some kind of debt," said Canavan.
In Massachusetts the process of applying for funds has been made simpler by a one-stop application process, which allows developers to apply for several sources of funding at once, but the process is still highly competitive and takes an average of three years from the time applications are submitted.
At this point, Williamstown has applied only for a federal Hazard Mitigation grant, which will be used to purchase the Spruces from Morgan Management, the property’s current owner, and supply residents with $22,500 each to help them relocate.
Much of the Spruces property is currently used for farmland, and it is unlikely that the residential portion will ever again be developed, since the risk of flooding remains high.
One way to approach the process of development elsewhere would be through Berkshire Housing Development Corporation, a non-profit regional housing authority. BHDC would become the project consultant and work with town residents to create proposals and determine which funding sources to apply for.
Massachusetts has long advocated for smart growth, a development initiative that focuses on urban development and creating more densely populated town centers. The idea is to reduce the need for new infrastructure and support the livelihood of commercial districts, while increasing energy efficiency.
The state’s focus on urban development, Canavan said, can sometimes give an edge in the competition for state funds.
"These proposals are all very competitive, so when you look at what the state wants to do," Canavan said, "and what the policy makers want to see happen, the leverage they have is the funding."
Veterans Village was built on a bus line, within walking distance to shops, and also uses photovoltaic cells to reduce its overall energy costs. "So we were very competitive when we were going through funding," Canavan said, "because we were doing it the way the state wanted to see it done. I just happened to agree. As the project manager, I wouldn’t have done it any other way."
Williamstown planners are still in the process of determining which of the current proposals are most feasible - in terms of funding and in terms of meeting the needs of future residents. So far, the Lowry property has drawn the most attention, partly because it will allow for the development of single-family units similar to the ones at the Spruces.
Although it is farther from the physical center of town than any of the other three sites, the Lowry property is still considered to be in the town center, Yamamoto said, since it is served by sewer and water infrastructure. A bus line could also potentially be extended to the site, she said.
The main obstacle to developing the Lowry property will likely be public opposition to removing the site from conservation status, where it has remained following a nearly unanimous vote in the 1987 annual Town Meeting.
Specific designs for the homes have not yet been decided on since it is too early in the process, Yamamoto said.
"At this point there’s only conceptual thoughts and those thoughts are based on what the Spruces people lived in before," she added, "which is one- and two-bedroom small homes of less than 1,000-square feet, on one level."
While the Spruces residents will likely occupy a significant portion of the new housing, the goal for development is to serve the town’s more general and long-term needs.
"The Spruces people are not the only people we’re talking about housing. There are other members of our community that are under-housed and could use affordable housing," Yamamoto said.
Many people who work in Williamstown cannot afford to live here, she said, and those people are mostly families with children, who also would need one and two-bedroom homes.
Any effective development, Canavan said, will require an approach that serves a wide range of needs.
"We’re looking at the tip of the iceberg. As the boomers get older, we’re going to need much more of what I call trans-generational housing," he said. "Let people age in place. If you build it right, you don’t have to do all these retrofits as people get older. It’s already designed to be done very easily."
Once housing is built, of course, maintaining it will be the next step.
"It’s almost impossible to maintain safe, decent affordable housing for low-income people without some kind of subsidy," Canavan said. Rental vouchers are one option for providing assistance to renters, but like development grants, those also have a waitlist.
"Ideally the rents that people pay sustain the project and the developer develops a financial feasibility plan for the property that is self-sustaining," said Yamamoto. "And that could mean a mix of rental increments, it could mean some market rate housing in the project, and some affordable, some subsidized, so it all depends on the developer."
To help address its need for affordable housing, Williamstown created an Affordable Housing Trust in 2012, and the town’s Community Preservation program has been collecting tax money to help pay for affordable housing development, in addition to historic preservation, open space and recreational areas.
The AHC recently submitted a request to the Community Preservation Committee for $200,000, to be used for new development. If the Carol Cable Mill project on Water Street resumes this year after a period of inactivity - the CPS had previously committed funding for the project to include 13 affordable housing units - little money would be left over for other projects. The request will be considered at the next CPC meeting on Jan. 29.
For a schedule of Affordable Housing Committee, Conservation Commission and other town meetings, see The Advocate’s calendar or visit williamstown.ws.