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Williamstown Housing Trust Restarts Mortgage Assistance Program
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
07:09AM / Sunday, September 06, 2020
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Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity expects the single-family home at the corner of Cole Avenue and Maple Street in Williamstown to be move-in ready by the end of the year.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The board of the town's Affordable Housing Trust on Thursday decided to raise the grant ceiling on the town's emergency rental assistance program and restart the DeMayo Mortgage Assistance Program.
 
The trustees agreed to hike the maximum award from the WERAP for a second time since it was created in the spring, this time from $2,500 to $4,000.
 
Meanwhile, in its first meeting since August's annual town meeting, the trustees agreed to resume the assistance program, which was suspended in April over concerns about limited funds and an impending need for a rental assistance program due to the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
At town meeting, voters unanimously approved a $75,000 grant of Community Preservation Act funds to the trust.
 
On Thursday, the trustees voted to earmark $30,000 of that grant toward the mortgage assistance program, which awards one-time grants of up to $15,000 to help cover the closing costs of income-qualified first-time homeowners.
 
"I did have an inquiry earlier this summer and had to reiterate that the program is suspended," trust Chair Thomas Sheldon told his colleagues.
 
Trustee Stanley Parese noted that as much as the trust anticipates even more need for rental assistance in the months ahead as programs like a supplemental unemployment benefit from the federal government sunset, it also could be a good time to maximize the effectiveness of the MAP grants.
 
"No amount of money would be sufficient right now, but with interest rates being at extraordinarily low levels, it's a good opportunity for someone to get into a house," Parese said. "But it's all of a piece. Interest rates are low because we're in the middle of an economic disaster.
 
"I would like to keep something available for a few mortgages because it's a great opportunity for someone to get into a house right now with the cost of money."
 
Since it was created by town meeting in 2012, the Affordable Housing Trust has been funded entirely by grants from the CPA program. Among its initiatives have been the acquisition of two empty residential parcels with the intent to build single-family homes; financial support of a senior housing project at the base of Southworth Street (Highland Woods) and a non-age-restricted subsidized housing project at 330 Cole Ave. (the former Photech Mill property); the rental assistance program; and the mortgage assistance program, which last year alone helped four first-time homeowners purchase properties.
 
Those grants made up the bulk of the AHT's spending in FY20, according to a report presented Thursday by treasurer Ruth Harrison. The trust laid out: $60,000 in mortgage assistance grants; $20,700 to Berkshire Housing Development Corporation, which is administering the rental assistance program; $372 toward upkeep of the residential lots on Cole Avenue and Summer Street; and $77 for brochures to advertise the DeMayo program.
 
The trust also has about $20,000 in the bank in restricted funds that were granted by town meeting specifically for use in Habitat for Humanity's "Brush with Kindness" program, which provides financial support for income-qualified homeowners with critical home repair needs.
 
To date, Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity has not come to the trust with requests for grants for the Brush with Kindness program, and on Thursday, the trustees briefly discussed a potential request to a future town meeting to modify the 2018 grant and make that $20,000 unrestricted, i.e., available to fund other projects.
 
As for the Williamstown Emergency Rental Assistance Program, administering agency BHDC has distributed three grants totaling $5,800 from an initial pool of $18,000.
 
Liz Costley, who has served as the trustees' liaison with Berkshire Housing, said that some applicants withdrew from the WERAP because other programs, like the commonwealth's Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, had higher grant caps. Another applicant withdrew from the WERAP process because their landlord decided to forgive the debt. And one withdrew because the application process was causing anxiety.
 
The last incident caused concern for trustees, who worried that the application process could be somehow burdensome or discouraging to people in need.
 
Costley said she discussed that possibility with representatives of Berkshire Housing, who were employing a unified application created by the state that can apply to multiple grants.
 
She was told no one should let the complexity of the form stop them from at least beginning the application process.
 
"What I wish I could communicate to people applying is even if they put their name and phone number and check a few boxes, it puts them in the system," Costley said. "They don't have to do everything on this [form]."
 
Sheldon encouraged Costley to continue the conversation with Berkshire Housing about how to make the application process smoother.
 
Another $40,000 from the fiscal 2021 CPA grant (not counting the administrative cost the trust pays Berkshire Housing for processing applications) will bolster the WERAP program in the short term, but the Affordable Housing Trust also is hoping that another funding source also can help replenish the grant fund.
 
"We haven't actually had an opportunity to submit a claim for reimbursement through the CARES Act that would put money back into our account, basically," Sheldon said. "I'm confident based on everything the town manager has said that it's going to happen that way. It will not quite be a revolving fund, but it will be something akin to it, in that there will be periodic replenishments."
 
In other business on Thursday, the trustees heard a report from Patrick Quinn on the progress of a Habitat for Humanity home being built on one of the two lots purchased by the AHT in 2015.
 
The first of two homes at the corner of Cole Avenue and Maple Street is on track to be ready for occupancy by the end of the year, Quinn said. The first family selected to be the home's initial occupant decided to drop out of the Habitat for Humanity program, but the non-profit has at least three completed applications in hand for a replacement and hopes to make the award soon, Quinn said.
 
Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity hopes to begin construction on the second home on the Cole/Maple site and start engineering work for a lot on Summer Street in 2021, Quinn said.
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