Foundation Being Established For New North County CDC

By Stephen DravisSpecial to
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — A good house needs a good foundation.

The same goes for the non-profit that would address the need for affordable housing in North County.

Organizers of the recently formed Hoosac Valley Community Development Corp. say they still have to develop a plan before they can start developing any housing projects.

"We don't want to raise expectations unrealistically," said James Canavan, a member of the city's Housing Authority and the board of the HVCDC. "Before we drive a nail, we really have to be about filling out the board. This will be a community-based association."

That is one distinction between the HVCDC, which was incorporated in March, and Housing Opportunities Inc., an agency that was created in 1985 by then Housing Authority Executive Director William Boland.

The authority's current executive director said HOI has accomplished a lot in the city, but it is time for a new model.

"Pretty much on average every five years (HOI) purchased a home, rehabbed it and sold it to a first-time homebuyer at 3 percent interest on a 25-year loan," Jennifer Hohn said.

"We don't have the resources to handle it on the administrative side. I was doing all the bookkeeping, the billing and everything, and once you have six or seven active mortgages, it ends up being too complicated."

Although HOI is a non-profit entity independent of the Housing Authority, historically it has been governed by the same board and directed by the Housing Authority executive director, who has led Housing Opportunities on a volunteer basis, Canavan said.

"For the time being, the Housing Authority executive director will be the CEO of the (Hoosac Valley) CDC, but on a pro boon basis," he said. "This isn't sustainable. We know that. But that's going to get us from Point A to Point B. We can impose on Jen's goodwill for a while, but she's got a full-time job. She doesn't need another full-time job."

The CDC would help obtain financing for building projects through loans and, possibly, grants, and the agency would in turn generate its funding from fees it collects from the projects. At this stage of the process, the HVCDC has no seed money, Canavan said. It is relying on the volunteer labor of its board and Hohn to get it to the point where it can develop an operating budget.

The non-profit's charter calls for a board of up to 11 members, and it currently has commitments from about a half-dozen participants.

"We don't want a political agenda. We don't want people bringing their pet peeves. We want folks who are interested in affordable housing and economic development."

"The board of HOI was basically the board of the Housing Authority," he said. "This will be more open to the community. We're right now talking to people about joining our board. We want to be careful about who we recruit. We don't want a political agenda. We don't want people bringing their pet peeves. We want folks who are interested in affordable housing and economic development."

And they want representatives from inside and outside the city limits. As the name implies, the Hoosac Valley CDC is envisioned as a regional body, capable of developing projects in North Adams, Adams, Clarksburg, Williamstown and surrounding towns, including Pownal and Stamford in Vermont.

Canavan said the HVCDC is not looking to make a big splash or generate a quick fix. He emphasized the need to take a long-term view at what can be accomplished in the region.

"At some point we'll have a complete board, and then we'll be about the business or strategic planning," Canavan said. "Just like any other business, we have to have a plan. We could be driven by opportunity in the short term, but for this to have legs, there has be strategic planning that guides us through the next our or five years.

"Of course, strategic planning will involve needs assessment. There's a lot of structural work that we need to do."

The goal will be to increase the availability of work-force housing. Both Canavan and Hohn agreed the city of North Adams has an adequate supply of low-income housing. The need is to create ownership opportunities for "a firefighter, a policeman, a teacher or someone who works at the hospital or MCLA," Canavan said.

It is far too soon to talk about specific projects the HVCDC might target, but Canavan was able describe a hypothetical of the kind of endeavor it might undertake.

"There are neighborhoods in North Adams that would benefit from in-fill housing," he said. "Right now, for example, on Bracewell Avenue, there are lots that are owned by the city. One model - and the board hasn't voted on this, I'm just speculating - would be to build modular duplexes on those lots and create a home-ownership opportunity ... and an income opportunity because the other side of the duplex would be a rental.

"We would want the rental to be affordable, so that may require a subsidy, which is where the partnership with the Housing Authority comes in or with the (Veterans Administration) in the case of veterans housing."

Canavan envisions a number of possible partnerships the HVCDC could develop with agencies like the VA or the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, which has a Community Based Housing program aimed at increasing affordable housing for residents with disabilities.

Another potential partnership might be with Pittsfield's Berkshire Housing Development Corp., which has a long track record of successful housing developments.

Berkshire Housing is one of more than 60 CDCs across the commonwealth who are members of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations. The other Berkshire County members are the Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corp. and the CDC of South Berkshire County in Great Barrington. There also is a Hilltown CDC in Chesterfield (Hampshire County) that serves Winsdor, Peru, Hinsdale, Washington, Becket and Otis in Berkshire County.

"We have some great CDCs in Massachusetts," Canavan said. "Springfield and Franklin County are doing great things. They're all around us."

A North County CDC operated from 1978 to 2003. The time has come to revisit the idea in the region, Canavan said.

"For any CDC, the three things you're interested in are affordable housing, economic development and community organizing," he said. "We have the (Northern Berkshire Community) Coalition, so we don't need to do any community organizing. In fact, we're talking to Al (Beshevkin) about helping us. We don't have to do that. It's being done.

"But there's little capacity in North Adams for economic development and developing affordable housing. Those are the areas where we can be helpful."

Tags: affordable housing,   CDC,   housing,   

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