WILLIAMSTOWN - The Affordable Housing Committee meeting on Feb. 12 marked a big step forward in the town's efforts to increase housing options for elderly, disabled and low-income people.
Most notably, John Ryan of Development Cycles presented the preliminary findings of his housing needs assessment, and the committee voted to move forward on a proposal to remediate the site at 59 Water St., which had been one of the committee's original targets for affordable housing development.
Currently at the halfway point, Ryan's assessment will serve as a basic document to help planners accurately address the housing needs of the Williamstown community. The assessment was designed to look at the town's needs from the perspective of potential funding sources, choosing data and presenting it in a way that those sources will find helpful in making decisions about funding allocation.
At the request of Catharine Yamamoto, chairwoman of the AHC, Ryan explained for the general audience what is meant by "affordable housing."
Each year, he said, the Department of Housing and Urban Development determines the area median income of every region in the United States. The range of affordable housing in a given region is based on that determination. In the case of Williamstown, the region used is the Berkshires minus Pittsfield.
According to HUD, in 2013 the median income of a single person living in a one-person household in Williamstown was $57,400.
"We tend to focus the issues of affordable housing on those who earn less than 80% of the median (for all kinds of housing)," Ryan said. "And then for rental housing -especially independent rental housing - the priority tends to be for those under 60% of median."
Housing is considered affordable, he said, when a household spends no more than 30% of its gross income on housing costs, which includes rent, mortgage, taxes and basic utilities.
The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Williamstown is $835, which in order to be affordable would require the tenant to be making $32,400 per year, Ryan said. "If you look at what the current estimates are of the incomes earned by people who are renters in Williamstown, less than half of the people could actually afford that apartment," he said.
In addressing the question of what demographic groups the AHC should be trying to serve, Ryan identified several general trends over the last ten years, including a decline in the number of renter households, especially those with children (almost 50%), and an increase in the number of people paying more than 35% of their annual incomes on housing. He also discovered " that there was a much higher concentration in Williamstown of senior [home] owners than you would see in the rest of the county - that this is becoming more of a retirement community, in many ways."
One of the primary target populations for affordable housing efforts in Williamstown, he said, should be single homeowners over the age of 65.
Much of Ryan's data was based on the 2010 U.S. Census and on the American Community Survey (which is conducted more frequently). But the ACS data for Williamstown presented an anomaly that Ryan had rarely encountered: The survey indicated a significant drop in the number of renters (from 755 to 555). He said the drop could not be accounted for by the loss of The Spruces Mobile Home Park following Tropical Storm Irene in 2010, since the figures were collected before the storm.
To correct for the difference, Ryan prorated all of the ACS data to reflect the numbers of the earlier U.S. Census.
Throughout the presentation, Ryan gathered feedback from the AHC and from members of the community. Yamamoto reiterated that one of the committee's original goals in commissioning the study was to gain a better sense of the specific needs of The Spruces residents, most of whom were displaced by flooding caused by Irene.
"Again, what this committee is seeking to solve is the problem of people who lost their homes, who want to return to Williamstown, lived in Williamstown for a very long time, consider it their home and now cannot find a place in Williamstown where they can afford to live," Yamamoto said. "There was a preexisting need and then there is that need as well, since the flooding."
She also said that what the committee is "ultimately looking for here is where the need, the sites that we have available to us and funding - where those three things intersect."
At the time of the meeting, Ryan was still waiting for information that would provide a better picture of the Spruces population - in terms of age, size of household, and income, he said. But he indicated that "the Spruces represented de facto affordable housing for a large number of people from Williamstown, that the loss of that resource in the community changes the nature of who lives here "
Susan Puddester, co-chair of the Higher Ground Disaster Replacement Committee, mentioned (not during the meeting) that a small number of people have moved into the Spruces since Irene, despite the danger of flooding and the park's uncertain future - an indication of the area's continuing demand for that type of affordable housing.
Ryan's final report will be presented to the AHC on March 5.
Also during the Feb. 12 meeting, the AHC voted unanimously to move forward on a proposal, submitted by O'Reilly, Talbot and Okun, to remediate the site at 59 Water St. The proposal includes removing subsurface soil contaminated by leakage from underground fuel tanks that have since been removed, and retesting the soil to ensure the safety of development.
The cost of remediation was estimated at $15,750, with an additional $5,500 for soil disposal and $1,200 for a Department of Environmental Protection fee. Because funds were only partially dispersed for the initial study conducted by O'Reilly, Talbot and Okun (which had been estimated to cost $13,500), the total amount due for remediation is $9,150.
"It's hoped that once this work is done, the site will be clean enough for us to move forward to the next step of more site review towards construction of housing there," said Yamamoto.
Committee member Charles Bonenti also reported on his efforts to begin identifying new financing options for individual renters and homeowners, and committee member Cheryl Shanks volunteered to continue researching those sources, which include some rent programs that Bonenti said the AHC or Affordable Housing Trust "could apply for, that might be useful in some way down the line."