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Williamstown Housing Board Advised to Focus on 'Below Market' Demographic
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
03:36AM / Wednesday, December 01, 2021
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The board of the town's Affordable Housing Trust this month was encouraged to focus its activities on creating opportunities for people earning just less than the area median income.
 
A well-known local real estate developer and the CEO of Berkshire Housing Development Corp. both told the body that there are more funding options for from state and federal sources for housing aimed at those making 60 percent or less than the AMI than for those earning 80 to 100 percent of AMI, a federal measure that depicts a number that half of an area's population earn above and half earn below.
 
"If there is a demonstrated need for 60 percent [below AMI], funds are available," David Carver told the trustees at their November meeting. "Your local funds should be directed to 60 to 100 [percent AMI] because that's where it gets difficult for the private sector to handle it and not possible for [BHDC's] projects to do it."
 
The board invited Carver and BHDC's Eileen Peltier to share their thoughts about the business of developing affordable housing and advise the body on how it might direct its efforts.
 
Peltier clarified that Berkshire Housing can and does create housing for people making more than 60 percent of AMI, but she agreed that the funding is more plentiful from state and federal sources for units aimed at lower income levels.
 
"We do mixed income housing," Peltier said. "Not everything we do is 60 percent or below. If we do a 30-unit building and 20 units are 60 percent or below, then I can do a nice mixed-income building. And having that more mixed income building has a lot of benefits to the people living there and the community."
 
Berkshire Housing's 41-unit project at 330 Cole Ave., which opened this summer, is an example of a development directed entirely toward residents at the lower end of the income scale. Twenty-seven units in the former mill complex are restricted to families making up to 60 percent of the AMI; the remaining 14 are for families making 30 percent or below AMI.
 
Peltier agreed with Carver that government funding tends to focus on lower income brackets.
 
"But if you look at people making 80 to 120 [percent AMI] -- it's often called 'workforce' housing, which I don't like because it suggests the people at Cole Avenue aren't working, and they are -- but below market is a term I've heard for people in that group, I know you have some access to programs in the state of Massachusetts and your local funds, but that's challenging.
 
"The term 'affordable housing' is a very confusing term. But having income-restricted housing to levels is something communities should think about. We do want to have housing for people at 80 to 120 [percent AMI]. And because of flat wages the last 25-30 years in this country, people working at what we would have thought of as really good jobs 25 years ago can't afford housing."
 
Housing was a hot topic at Town Hall in November.
 
The Planning Board has continued a months-long comprehensive review of the zoning bylaw with the stated purpose of expanding housing options in town.
 
Cable Mills Final Phase
 
One night before the trustees of the Affordable Housing Trust met with Peltier and Carver, another developer was before the Community Preservation Committee to talk about a request he plans to file for Community Preservation Act funds to be allocated at May's annual town meeting.
 
David Traggorth told the CPC that he hopes to break ground on the third and final phase of Water Street's Cable Mills development as soon as late 2022.
 
Traggorth previously has tapped CPA funds local and low-income tax credits from the state to help renovate the historic mill building, where 13 of the 61 apartments are income-restricted: 10 at 80 percent AMI and three at 100 percent AMI.
 
The next phase of the project, the "river lofts," will create 54 new mixed-income apartments, Traggorth said.
 
"Of the 54 units, 27 will be market rate, 20 will be 60 percent AMI and seven will be 30 percent AMI," he told the CPC.
 
"There will be no difference in the finishes between the affordable units and the market rate units," Taggorth said. "Just like with Cable Mills now, you have no idea if you walk through the building, which units are [subsidized] and which ones are not. They're all mixed in."
 
Traggorth told the CPC his firm will be submitting an application for $500,000 in CPA funds to help finance the project. Although his financing plan for the development includes a much larger contribution from the state, decision makers in Boston want to see local support for projects before making awards, which typically come out in June.
 
The town still has four annual payments left on a 10-year, $1.1 million bond to pay its $1.5 million local commitment to the $27 million Phase 1 at Cable Mills.
 
In fiscal year 2023, that payment is going to eat up $120,000 from the town's CPA coffers, CPC Chair Phil McKnight told his colleagues.
 
The Affordable Housing Trust is working on its own request for consideration by the CPC in January. The CPC expects to have up to $258,000 available for projects in FY23. In June, town meeting overwhelmingly approved more than $200,000 in new, unrestricted CPA funds for the housing trust in FY22.
 
Traggorth's funding plan for the river lofts at Cable Mills underscored the point Peltier and Carver made to the AHT board about the availability of funding for housing restricted to 60 percent and below AMI.
 
Another takeaway from the board's conversation from the developers was that the town ought to identify properties that might be suitable for housing development and, if necessary, rehabilitate said properties prior to offering them to developers.
 
That is the model the town followed at 330 Cole Ave., where the former mill property needed remediation work before it could be turned over to Berkshire Housing and its partners.
 
"Being a developer is understanding there are a million hurdles," Peltier said. "There are always [financial] gaps and challenges. What gets the project to happen is the passion from the community to say, ‘We want to see something happen here.' "
 
"To step into an unknown, such as environmental issues, that can't happen," Carver said. "Site preparation, when you have a dilapidated property like that, that's a huge incentive."
 
Carver also advised the trustees to be deliberate about what segment of the population they want to serve with their housing efforts. Both developers agreed that an updated housing study would help; the last housing study, spearheaded by the now defunct Affordable Housing Committee, was completed nearly a decade ago.
 
The developers indicated the town should address potential zoning obstacles to lower cost -- if not necessarily subsidized -- housing, including a change already contemplated by the Planning Board: allowing more multi-family units in existing homes.
 
"Take some of these beautiful old buildings that are larger than they need to be and break them up," Carver said.
 
Peltier said Williamstown is not alone in having older, larger housing stock that would lend itself to conversion to two-, three- or four-family homes.
 
"Part of the reason we're in a housing crisis in this country is because of the size of the family," she said. "Think about people you know: There are two people in a home with four bedrooms. Fifty years ago, there were seven people in that house.
 
"A creative solution to that, I think, is fabulous."
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