|Williamstown Housing Trust Sets Parameters for Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:04AM / Thursday, April 01, 2021
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The board of the town's Affordable Housing Trust on Wednesday finalized the parameters of an emergency mortgage assistance program it is developing to help residents impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mirroring the Williamstown Emergency Rental Assistance Program the board created last summer, the new program will provide grants of up to $15,000 to help homeowners economically impacted by the pandemic stay in their homes.
Like the emergency rental program, the emergency mortgage grants will be administered by Pittsfield's Berkshire Housing Development Corp., which will screen applicants for eligibility and need.
The seven-person trust board Wednesday authorized a three-member subcommittee to communicate the board's decisions about the program to BHDC, sign an agreement and get the program live so it can start accepting applications.
Trustee Daniel Gura, a member of that subcommittee that has been building the program with the Pittsfield non-profit, said he expects the final agreement can be signed before the trustees' April meeting.
Gura, Stanley Parese and Ruth Harrison on Tuesday brought their colleagues a series of questions that needed to be resolved about the rules of the program so Berkshire Housing can implement the board's preferences in the final guidelines.
The first issue on the table was whether the board wanted to set a number for the assessed value of homes that could be awarded grants without a further consultation between the board and BHDC.
Chair Thomas Sheldon, stressing that the board ultimately will have a finite amount of resources to fund the assistance program, advocated for setting a cap of about $300,000, roughly equal to the median single-family home price in town. Sheldon said he would not exclude grants to homeowners with more expensive homes, but he wanted to have a conversation at the board level if applicants came in with homes assessed above that level.
"If Berkshire Housing gets a request for a house where the value is $250,000 and then one at $225,000 and then one at $275,000 and then they get a request for a home valued at $500,000, at that point, if you ask me whether I'll support that, I'd say based on the track record so far, I'd rather have our ceiling lower than that," Sheldon said. "That would make me resist the idea of supporting an application when there's enough experience to suggest there's a need at a lower assessed value.
"But if the first [application] comes in and it's at $475,000 and no one else is showing up, that's a different scenario."
Gura said he believes the trust can rely on the experts at Berkshire Housing to assess the need of the applicants.
"Need is need," he said. "Saving the money to help someone who might be more needy in the future is problematic. If Berkshire Housing has someone at $475,000 [assessed value] who has need, and we're concerned it's going to take our [grant budget] to zero, I say: So be it.
"I think our goal has to be to get it out as fast as possible to as many people who show the need. If that means we do eight [grants] instead of 10, so be it."
The board decided to instruct BHDC to prioritize applicants' based on need and to provide data about the assessed values of the homes attached to grants, but it did not, for now, set a cap on that value.
The board also Wednesday made a final decision on the $15,000 limit for grants after hearing feedback from local lenders that grants at that level would make a significant difference for homeowners whose mortgages are in forbearance.
In a subsequent vote, the trustees decided to allow multiple grants to a single homeowner but to ask for a conversation between Berkshire Housing and the board if an individual's second or third request would bring their total funds to more than $15,000.
The board had considered building a "means test" into its grant application to rule out applicants who may have had their income impacted by the pandemic but who still have liquid assets (savings, non-retirement investments, etc.) that could be tapped to address the mortgage payments.
But on Wednesday, it decided, based on advice from Berkshire Housing, that the non-profit already has procedures to address that issue.
"They have no desire to give money to someone who has a million-dollar brokerage account," Parese said of BHDC. "I'd ask them to make that determination as they see necessary rather than us picking a line."
Since the emergency mortgage assistance program is being seeded with trust funds generated by the Community Preservation Act, the board decided to restrict applicants to people earning 100 percent of the area median income — a baseline requirement for expenditure of all CPA housing funds.
The trustees are hoping that the emergency mortgage assistance program will mirror the WERAP
in the administrative fee that Berkshire Housing will charge for running the program. In the case of the rental program, that fee is 15 percent of the funds granted to applicants. The town board Wednesday voted to authorize its subcommittee to sign a contract that sets the administrative fee at up to 15 percent.
It also voted to transfer $30,000 from the trust's account to Berkshire Housing to seed the emergency mortgage assistance program.
The money the trust expends on both the emergency mortgage and emergency rental assistance programs is reimbursable from federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds.
On Wednesday, the Trustees discussed submitting a request to the town (a pass-through for CARES Act reimbursements) to replenish the $34,556 in WERAP funds that have been dispersed or are in the process of being dispersed by Berkshire Housing. That emergency rental assistance program currently has a balance of $13,444, Liz Costley told the board on Wednesday night.
The town has informed the trust that it can offer reimbursements with CARES Act funds through Dec. 31, 2021. After that, either emergency assistance program will need to reply on any CPA funds that the Affordable Housing Trust is allotted by June's annual town meeting
"The repercussions of COVID will go well into the future," Sheldon noted. "It's just going to be a fact of life for a few years at least."