WILLIAMSTOWN -- Williams College has selected a team of four local organizations to undertake an affordable housing project on a parcel of land next to the Proprietor's Fields apartments on Church Street. The land will be made available free of charge.
The organizations are Higher Ground, The Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development, Berkshire Housing Development Corporation and Williamstown Housing Corporation, all of which have strong ties to the community.
At the announcement on June 20 at the Faculty Club, Williams College President Adam Falk acknowledged the loss of homes to Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and mentioned the findings of John Ryan's recent housing needs assessment, which he said confirmed what was true even before Irene - that Williamstown lacks sufficient elderly and low-income housing.
"In one day almost five percent of our town's non-student population lost their homes," he said, referring to residents of the Spruces Mobile Home Park. "And almost two years later, only a fraction of them have been able to return to a situation that is welcoming, but that we all know is temporary."
He praised the efforts of those who have been working to address the issues of affordable housing in town and introduced what he described as "a complementary, privately organized project."
The process of selecting the developers began nearly a year ago when Bilal Ansari, president of Higher Ground and a member of the Affordable Housing Committee, solicited a grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, based in New York City.
"Immediately their record and mission matched our needs," Ansari wrote in an email, noting the institute's method of working directly with communities during the development process.
In response to the college's request for proposals, Higher Ground sumbitted a proposal that drew together The Women's Institute, Berkshire Housing Development Corporation and Williamstown Elderly Housing Corporation. Falk said the college selected that proposal after submitting requests to five nonprofit organizations.
In the coming weeks, Higher Ground will work to facilitate community dialogue that will help determine the course of the development. The group already has completed a survey of the Spruces residents to gain a sense of their needs and preferences, and is in the process of collating that information.
James Kolesar, assistant to the president for public affairs at Williams, said that once the new site passes zoning requirements and the developers obtain the necessary funding, the site will be donated to an entity devised by the development team. The college has already signed an option agreement enabling that process, he said.
The nearly four-acre site is part of the larger Southworth site, which includes Eph's pond to the north and the Hunt Tennis Center to the west. When the college acquired the land around the beginning of the 20th century it was mostly farmland, said Henry Art, former chair of the Conservation Commission. During World War I, he said, the portion of the site near Proprietor's Fields was used as a training ground for trench warfare. Most of the site is now forested.
"A consultant hired by the college confirmed that this parcel is uniquely suited for affordable housing," said Falk. "It not only abuts affordable housing, but it's clean, it's in town, it's on a public bus route and it's near the senior center, for one set of potential residents, and across the street from the elementary school for another."
Mollye Wolahan, deputy director of the Women's Institute, said it was too early to determine what number and style of units will be most appropriate for the development, but that further site evaluation and conversations with the community will help answer those questions.
Community engagement is a major initiative of both the Women's Institute and Berkshire Housing Development Corporation. Elton Ogden, president of BHDC, said what he finds so exciting about the current project is that it "really was entirely generated from the people in town caring about a real issue, recognizing that we need more housing - and there are lots of people working on it in different directions."
"I feel like the stage has been set for us to create a really wonderful development plan that is going to meet the well-identified needs that we have here in Williamstown," he said.
The BHDC developed and now manages Proprietor's Fields, a 60-unit affordable housing complex owned by Williamstown Elderly Housing Corporation on what was also college-owned land. The BHDC and the board of Proprietor's Field had been working to expand that development, but the Housing and Urban Development programs they had envisioned using have been unfunded for three years, Ogden said, so the project is on hold.
Since 2011, the new site has remained in the background of community discussions regarding affordable housing. The town's focus so far has been on a handful of publicly owned sites, including the Lowry property on Stratton Road, the site of the former Photech Mill on Cole Avenue and the site of the former Town Garage on Water Street. A list of potentially available privately owned lands has been discussed but not made public.
On June 17, the recently formed Long-Term Coordinating Committee (whose goals include providing a recommendation on the most appropriate sites for affordable housing) introduced another potentially town-owned parcel into the mix.
Chairwoman Jane Allen explained that when the Planning Board approved a subdivision on Henderson Road several years ago, the landowner, Berkshire Properties, agreed to donate a 2.4-acre parcel known as the Sweet Farm lot either to the town or to a 501(c)(3) organization. The committee is in the process of evaluating that site.
The committee will meet with Higher Ground on Monday, July 1, to discuss the results of the Higher Ground survey.