WILLIAMSTOWN -- Two years after Tropical Storm Irene, town committees are still working to provide alternative housing for the 66 households remaining at The Spruces Mobile Home Park. This summer has seen many surprises in the process, and more can be expected.
In August the Board of Selectmen withdrew its request of the Conservation Commission to release portions of the Lowry and Burbank properties on Stratton Road for the purpose of building affordable housing. Chairwoman Jane Allen cited the need to focus on less controversial solutions and to better utilize the limited timeframe of the town's FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant.
The board also endorsed the town's collaboration with the four entities involved in an affordable housing project currently underway on land donated by Williams College. So far, that approach has offered the most hope for beating the FEMA deadline and rehousing at least some of the current and former Spruces residents.
Prior to the withdrawal, Allen and Town Manager Peter Fohlin had met with representatives from each of the four groups involved in the project. Allen said the representatives strongly supported for the idea of collaborating on the project.
One of Allen's goals in initiating the withdrawal was to present the idea of a collaboration to Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, who met with town officials and a representative from Williams College on Aug.
At a meeting of the Spruces Roof Group (an eight-member steering committee that Allen chairs) on Aug. 26, Allen said that Gornstein was optimistic about the collaboration.
"He was very positive about making this project happen within the timeframe necessary for the Spruces residents to move into it," she said. "And he said it's tough, but it's doable, and given the site, the resources, the team already in place, the pressing need, people losing their homes, and the local support for the project, he's very positive that it could happen."
But she emphasized that the support of the community and of town committees would be critical in helping the various pieces fall into place.
Also at the Aug. 26 meeting, Sue Metzner of Higher Ground presented the results of a recent survey of current and former Spruces residents, providing a clearer picture of their needs.
Of the 103 people who responded to the survey (a 56-percent response rate) 64 were interested in relocating to affordable housing in Williamstown. It remains unclear whether the additional housing required to meet that need could be built within the three-year timeframe of the FEMA grant.
Only 8 percent of the respondents who were displaced by Tropical Storm Irene were living elsewhere in Williamstown at the time of the survey, indicating the lack of low-income and elderly housing options in town. More than half of the respondents were living at The Spruces.
Metzner pointed out that the discussion with Williams College about developing the college property, which began last year, had been initiated by Higher Ground, with the specific goal of providing new housing for the Spruces community. It has been unclear to what extent the new project will be able to address that need.
Higher Ground Chairman Bilal Ansari said in July that the group would seek to prioritize the Spruces community, but that it will need to share its goals with those of the other three entities (Berkshire Housing Development Corporation, The Women's Institute for Economic Development and Williamstown Elderly Housing Corporation). State funding agencies might also not allow the project to be designated for a specific population, but that is still unknown.
One frequently asked question - and a central issue in the debate over whether to release the Lowry property from conservation - is how to develop housing that would meet the town's immediate needs and also conform to the state's guidelines for affordable housing development. State funding policies currently favor family housing, which would be at odds with the town's current need.
According to the Higher Ground survey, 46 percent of the current and displaced Spruces residents who responded were over 70 and almost all of them were over 50. Eighty-two percent would expect to be living alone or with one other person following their relocation from the Spruces.
Stanley Parese, chairman of the Affordable Housing Trust and a member of the Spruces Roof Group, said that after the meeting with Gornstein it was clear that the state is capable of adapting to the specific needs of individual communities, and that state officials appreciate the need in Williamstown.
"There are these general policy propositions and then there is what happened here," he said. "And I think the people in Boston - the signals we have gotten is that they are fully capable of recognizing what happened here. We're not running into some blind bureaucracy that doesn't care."
The DHCD has applied for a $7.2-million federal Community Block Grant, to be used for disaster relief funding. The town has applied for $315,000 of those funds, which would help cover infrastructural costs associated with the new project. As part of the application, Elton Ogden, president of BHDC, developed a preliminary timeline, projecting that new housing would be completed by December 2015.
In July, Allen signed a request asking that the deadline for residents to vacate The Spruces be extended, also to December 2015. The Town has not received a response, but Allen is optimistic the request will be honored, since it was FEMA that had originally suggested that the town make the request.
While the collaboration with the four entities appears to be the most realistic option so far, it will not address the town's longer-term need for affordable housing.
Town committees will continue to pursue other options, including development at the site at 59 Water St. and the site of the former Photech Mill on Cole Avenue. The Affordable Housing Committee has hired consultants to help issue requests for proposals for those sites, and the Affordable Housing Trust has begun the process of issuing RFPs for privately-owned sites in town.
Parese acknowledged that the collaborative project would not meet the overall housing need, but said if the state were to indicate that the town's other projects were in competition for funding, he would not object to putting them on hold.
"This is the priority," he said. "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."
But he also emphasized that nothing like the disaster at the Spruces has ever happened in Berkshire County. He did not feel that the town's need for assistance from state agencies on multiple projects was "unreasonable or something that they will find off-putting given the catastrophe that was visited on this community."
"I don't think they are looking at us and saying, It's business as usual up in Williamstown," he said. "It's not business as usual."