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Williamstown Sorts Out Affordable Housing Questions
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
11:53PM / Tuesday, April 03, 2012
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Tuesday's meeting drew more than 60 residents wishing to get more information about affordable housing warrants the town will soon be voting on.

Affordable Housing Committee Chairwoman Catherine Yamamoto explained the multiple facets of affordable housing and how different groups will address them.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town is looking to double its stock of affordable housing but what that means exactly is still being questioned.

A heightened focus on housing since the flooding of the Spruces Mobile Home Park last August will take center stage at town meeting with four warrant articles intended to increase housing options.

However, those articles have long-term goals that are not likely to help Spruces residents but instead address other housing needs.

"Affordable housing is a complex issue," Affordable Housing Committee Chairwoman Catherine Yamamoto said at an informational meeting Tuesday night. "We have to look at multiple things at once."

The nonprofit group Higher Ground is currently working on immediate help for Spruces residents whereas the warrant articles will lay the ground for providing lower-priced housing in the future, which advocates say has been needed for years. The Spruces disaster brought many housing issues to the forefront, they say.

The first warrant article the committee is asking for is $107,500 from the Community Preservation Act to hire consultants and engineers to research property in town for a new development. Exactly what that project would eventually entail would be determined by both the study and a plan established by the committee. The Affordable Housing Committee will be the planners and the trust fund would see it through to fruition, Yamamoto said.

Implementing that plan would be helped along with the other two warrant articles regarding the committee. Voters will be asked to approve the formation of an Affordable Housing Trust Fund and then to allocate another $200,000 to it.

While the plan may take some time, the trust fund provides a lot of benefits, Yamamoto and other affordable housing advocates said at the meeting that drew more than 60 residents to the Williams Inn.

"Deals happen fast and if you don't have a mechanism in place, you're going to lose it," said Theresa Ahrens, a member of the Lenox Affordable Housing Committee, which is one of 88 municipalities in the state that has implemented a trust fund. "You have the money and the opportunity to make something happen."

Additionally, the trust fund can accept both monetary and land donations as well as acquire foreclosed properties, which would be difficult for a town to do without the fund. With property in Williamstown being so scarce, the committee says the fund will go a long way toward diversifying the town's housing stock.

However, some residents expressed concern over accountability and the end result. Mobile Home Rent Control Board Chairman Jack Nogueira pointed to the Church Corners affordable housing project and its $700 a month rent as an example of a project not playing out to plan.

Nogueira questioned the committee on exact plans for the money, which advocates said they do not have yet because there can be no study without money. Nogueira advocated for residents of the Spruces to receive help sooner.

"They need the housing now. They can't wait two to three years for these projects to go through," Nogueira said. "These people are desperate."

While the Rev. Carrie Bail, chairman of Higher Ground, said her organization is in charge of helping Spruces residents now. Yet, if something happens quickly with the trust fund it could help those residents, too.

Yamamoto addressed the oversight question by explaining the fund's bylaws. The five-member board of trustees looking over the fund will consist of a member of the Affordable Housing Committee, a selectman and three appointees from the Board of Selectmen. Those appointees can be removed at any time by the Selectmen and the trustees will subjected to open meeting laws — meaning residents and press will be able to keep an eye on the actions they take.

"All of our boards work together," Yamamoto said.

The trust fund will keep an open mind about what income bracket fits into the affordable housing category — which is by definition affordable to anybody earning less than Williamstown's $51,875 area-wide median income. Particularly, the group is looking at town-owned land first to lower the development costs, which in turn will lower the rent, as well as look into partnering with a private developer.

Yamamoto pointed to the Church Corners as a success because it has a "great cross-section." The committee has previously stated that it hopes to span the entire gambit of affordable housing through multiple projects. Those project could include purchasing and building new housing or implementing programs to help renters or homeowners or provide repairs to homes.

"We need everybody to be able to succeed here to be successful," said Lauren Shuffleton, a Williams College student performing an independent study on the town's housing situation and a member of Higher Ground.

Shuffleton presented a slideshow outlining her studies which showed that only 5 percent of the town's housing qualifies as "affordable." Going into that 10 percent is any type of housing that is tied to rent or subsidized by the state or federal government — the definition further separates the committee's request from the Spruces because the park is neither and did not count in that percentage.

In response to other concerns, Yamamoto said the trust's actions would not be subject to Selectmen approval. Though their ability to remove members is a deterrent, they would need to follow local and state zoning and permitting laws, and while there are other projects seeking funding from the Community Preservation Act, there is enough to fund all of the project.

Another request from the Berkshire Housing Corp. from the CPA of $80,000 to build a 20- to 25-unit expansion of Proprietors Fields went unquestioned though the housing groups were prepared to answer questions.

The meeting was put on by the Affordable Housing Committee, the Housing Authority, the League of Women Voters and Higher Ground.
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