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Williamstown Finance Panel Gets Details on Housing Needs
By Stephen Dravis, Williamstown Correspondent
10:29PM / Thursday, February 21, 2013
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Affordable Housing Committee Chairwoman Catherine Yamato speaks at Thursday's Finance Committee meeting.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Representatives of the two town boards dedicated to addressing its affordable housing needs discussed the issue with the Finance Committee on Thursday night.

Not surprisingly, one of the chief topics of discussion involved how affordable housing projects are financed.

Affordable Housing Committee Chairwoman Catherine Yamamoto and Affordable Housing Trust Chairman Stanley Parese indicated that large-scale subsidized housing projects would require outside funding.

Using for example the most ambitious development under consideration in town, Yamamoto said that even if the town receives the $6 million FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant it has applied for and even if it has several million dollars leftover after closing the Spruces Mobile Home Park (as required under the grant), additional grants funds would be needed to build houses on a town-owned site under consideration.

"The only thing we've talked about in a very conceptual way is what the Affordable Housing Committee asked Guntlow (and Associates) to do: a conceptual plan for the Lowry Property," Yamamoto said.

That initial concept envisions 40 single-family homes on 10 acres of the 30-acre Lowry site, land that currently is in conservation.

"With $3 million, you're not going to clear the land and build 40 homes," Yamamoto said. "The first thing we'd have to do is put out an RFP (request for proposals) and bring in a home developer."

Developers would know which federal and state grant programs would be applicable to support the kind of housing Yamamoto's committee and the Selectmen envision for the Lowry Property, Yamamoto and Parese said.

The element of public financing is one of the primary criteria for determining what makes housing stock classifiable as "affordable housing," Yamamoto explained.

"The housing in a mobile home park is low-cost housing, but it's not affordable housing with a capital 'A' and a capital 'H'," she said. "It's not supported by public dollars."

Yamato explained how many housing units were lost in Irene and the criteria for new housing.

Other criteria Yamamoto outlined for affordable housing in the strict sense: its purchase price or rent is regulated and it is affordable to moderate- or low-income households.

Some affordable housing projects, like the Proprietors Field project on Church Street in Williamstown, has rents capped at 30 percent of a resident's income.

Other models base rent on a percentage of the "area median income" or AMI as determined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development based on census data. For Williamstown residents, the AMI is about $61,000 per year (before taxes). The locally financed Church Corner project on Cole Avenue has rents capped at 80 percent of the AMI, Yamamoto said.

By these generally recognized criteria for affordable housing, the town has 147 units that meet the definition, Yamamoto said: 60 at Proprietors Field, 30 at Meadowvale, 22 at Spring Meadow, 16 units managed by the town's Housing Authority, eight privately run but publicly financed units in a group home for residents with special needs, eight apartments at Church Corner and three Habitat for Humanity projects with deed restrictions specifying income levels for owner-occupants.

With about 2,800 households in town, that means about 5 percent of its housing stock is categorized as affordable housing — well below the 10 percent target for communities established by the commonwealth in 1969 or the "190 to 225" units targeted by the town's 2002 Master Plan.

Yamamoto's and Parese's committees — and others in town — are striving to address a need for affordable housing that predates the loss of 155 homes at the Spruces in Tropical Storm Irene. And each chairman spoke passionately about the issue on Thursday night.

Alluding to the controversy in town surrounding the proposal to develop the Lowry Property, Parese challenged the notion that the town can address its need for housing without using undeveloped land.

"We're not going to address the affordable housing needs in town and those 150 homes [lost at the Spruces] with brownfields and infill," Parese said. "We're trying as a community build housing for people who were here and lost their homes."

Yamamoto referred to a housing needs assessment her committee has commissioned and said the preliminary findings indicate that the town's demographics are shifting away from first-time homeowners and low- and moderate-income residents.

"What kind of town do we want Williamstown to be?" she asked. "Do we want only a certain demographic here? ... Williamstown is getting older and wealthier with fewer children.

"Maybe some people want that. I don't."

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