WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Affordable Housing Committee is asking for a long-term commitment from the Community Preservation Act to expand low-income housing.
The Affordable Housing Committee previously requested $107,000 be allocated for the group to research possible properties but returned on Tuesday asking for an additional $600,000 for future acquisitions and developments. Through discussion with the Community Preservation Act Committee, the groups decided the money would be put in a Municipal Affordable Housing Trust Fund that would be overseen by a new board.
While the request did not start off Tuesday night with a trust fund, Chairman of the Affordable Housing Committee Catherine Yamamoto agreed to work it into the proposal per the CPA Committee's request. The new board would be appointed, have at least one selectman and act in collaboration with the town to distribute the funds.
The committee can and is expected to return to the board in the future, so ultimately, the committee would be making a longer-term commitment to affordable housing.
However, the CPA Committee only has $570,000 to spend and about $30,000 of that would need to be spent on other projects. The committee, however, could spread the funding through multiple years or could start by exhausting the entire fund, which the town has never done before.
According to Yamamoto, the increase was requested because an earlier focus on the town garage site or the former Photech site has shown that those town-owned properties would not be "as shovel ready" as thought. The group has now begun looking at privately owned land. One such site is the Youth Center on Cole Avenue, which led to Youth Center Executive Director and CPA Committee member David Rempell to recuse himself from the discussion. Rempell later said Affordable Housing officials had visited the site.
"We have been looking at private properties," Yamamoto said. "This would enable us to buy one or more of the properties."
The initial $107,000 would still be used for the study but with the commitment, the group would be able to start taking action, Yamamoto said. Action is exactly what CPA Committee member Christopher Winters wants. Winters said the town takes too much time studying and he would be willing to "take a leap of faith" that the money would get a project rolling sooner rather than later. However, committee member Malcolm Smith said that by not having more details about the end result, the group is just writing a "blank check."
"There is action and then there is writing a blank check," Smith said. "This feels like a big blank check to me."
Board members also questioned if these projects would go to actual low-income housing. Yamamoto said the committee would have to abide by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's regulations. The formula used to determine what is qualified for affordable housing is that a person's income must be no more than 80 percent of the town's median income. Williamstown's median income is about $50,000; anyone making more than $40,000 a year would not qualify.
Yet, Yamamoto said the goals of the committee are to reach to even lower-income brackets. The group wants multiple projects that will increase affordable housing of all income brackets by 500 to 600 homes.
Store at Five Corners
In another CPA request, the South Williamstown Community Association has dropped its request for $400,000 to purchase the Store At Five Corners down to $250,000. According to Barbara McLucas of the association, the committee lowered its request in light of the other projects coming before the town. When the association applied, there were only two small projects being considered, McLucas said.
The association also returned with a business plan for operating the building as a general store, which CPA committee members asked for at the last meeting. McLucas said the group would be interested in using the building for anything but chose a general store because of zoning. The store is grandfathered under zoning to be operated as a store and changing the zoning would be unlikely, McLucas said. That grandfather designation is set to expire in January 2013, when it would revert to residential housing, and the group is hoping to retain the building for public use.
The association took a different focus on Tuesday than it had at the previous meeting, when the presentation focused mostly on the continued operation of the business. Now the group is stressing the building's historic nature, saying the business would be to keep up with maintenance and make it accessible to the community.
The plan, which CPA committee member Peter Fohlin called "horrible," calls for a typical general store with convenience items, coffee, newspapers, deli sandwiches — much like it was operated before — and be a non-profit. It would be run by "skeleton" staffing and volunteers and open mostly mornings. Additionally, McLucas said she talked with the Chamber of Commerce about possibly putting in a visitors' area in the store.
Like most businesses, the association expects the store to run in the red for three years until it breaks even. After that, any profit that is made would be returned in a "co-operative" type way with the volunteers that work the store. McLucas estimates that the purchase would cost about $550,000, a few other thousands in start-up operation costs and then repairs to the aging structure.
"There are other grants we will seek and then we will go on a massive capital campaign," McLucas said.
The committee members agreed on the historic quality of the building, but raised concerns about the amount of money, the feasibility of operating it and that the owner has not indicated if he would sell only the store. The store and the adjacent Green River Farm are on the market for $5 million.
The CPA committee asked McLucas to return with something from the building's owner saying he'd be willing to sell just the store, estimated cost of repairs to the building, a report on the prospect of running a successful campaign and more details on what the association members themselves are willing to contribute.
The CPA committee expected to begin voting on the requests Tuesday but delayed all of the requests until the next meeting because of the changes in proposals. The committee has until the end of March to recommend the projects in order to make it onto this year's town meeting warrant.
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The Williamstown Youth Center should give their current building to the Town for affordable housing. After all the Town gave them a million dollar lot to build upon.
Anything less is corruption. In addition, the youth Center told us the building was worthless and unusable for the Youth Center and couldn't be fixed for their use. (Meaning the powers that be wanted a more upscale location.)
It will be interesting if the Town gets scammed a second time by the Youth Center by having the Town, in effect, pay a highly inflated price to take the worthless unsaleable building off their hands that otherwise could sit vacant for years looking for a buyer.
Why not buy the old Grange Hall on Green River Road? It is the perfect Community Preservation trifecta:
Use the land along the river for recreation/conservation, make the Grange building a community building for community arts, theater, music, and meetings, and bulld affordable housing on the rest. Perfect for everyone in the Town.
It's looking more and more like Williamstown should remove itself from the CPA. Citizens are just looking at it like a big pot of money for tehir own projects. Now that only 25% comes from the state, it's time to vote on stopping it.
That said, good luck this year to the housing initiative. If your only competition is those still laughable SCWA folks and their private store, you should do well.
Editor: The "horrible" comment was in the context of the committee's focus - either saving a building or saving a business. The business is not projected to make much, if any, profit and the building requires a lot of repairs so as a money-maker, it is "horrible investment." However, if the business is only intended to keep the building alive, then the committee's considerations are different. -Andy McKeever.
One such site is the Youth Center on Cole Avenue, which led to Youth Center Executive Director and CPA Committee member David Rempell to recuse himself from the discussion. Rempell later said Affordable Housing officials had visited the site.
Mr. Rempell should resign from the Community Preservation Committee immediately, and both he and the Affordable Housing Committee should each give separate sworn written dispositions regarding any discussions involving the Youth Center, its building, Mr. Rempell and any Affordable Housing Committee members. Insider trading should have no place in Williamstown.
Any of the 4 other Selectmen should take Mr. Rempell's place on the Community Preservation Committee, though having both Mrs. Fohlin & Rempell on the Committee seems improper in the first place.
Editor: That seems a bit harsh, no? He recused himself from the conversation and the CPA Committee is not the ultimate authority. They just recommend funding for projects and the voters have the final say. By Rempell not engaging in the conversation, it is no different than if he didn't attend the meeting at all. -Andy McKeever
When the Affordable Housing Committee visited the Youth Center, Mr. Rempell was in a position to act and provide information that he was privy to as a Selectman, a member of the Community Preservation Committee, and as the director of the Youth Center which is interested in unloading their current building.
Recusing himself at the meeting only was a little late and was for public show only.
Public officials should avoid even the slightest appearance of conflict of interest even if they have perfectly good intentions and actually do nothing improper.
Editor: No, he would only have information regarding the Youth Center since the CPA and the Selectmen have nothing with the operation or maintenance of the building. Members of various boards recuse themselves when there is a perceived conflict of interest. Forcing members to resign when anything related to them comes before them, would mean no one could ever sit on a board.
Why are some making so much about nothing? David Rempell has stepped to the plate for the Youth Center as well as other committees in town and who cares more about our town then David. He works very hard for every committee he is on and should not step down as we need more people like him on committees not less, as hard working smart people like him are hard to find. The town buying the Youth Center building would again be an investment in the youth of our town of which the proceeds would go to, and would save a town building that has a lot of history as it's use for over a century has been as a school and Boy's Club/Youth Center.
SWCA shouldn't receive a penny from the town for their little store. There's enough money in S. Williamstown to buy both the farm and the store many times over. Let the SWCA dig into their own pockets. Shame on them. Their business plan ought to be made public too.