The Affordable Housing Committee heard from Timothy Geller of Community Development Corp. of Southern Berkshire and how his organization has addressed affordable housing.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — When it comes to building subsidized housing, higher ground may not always be an option.
But higher buildings can be part of the solution.
On Wednesday evening, the town's Affordable Housing Committee sat down with the executive director of the Community Development Corp. of Southern Berkshire.
Timothy Geller shared his experience building a 30-unit development on 3.5 acres of a 19-acre plot that exists in a Stockbridge flood plain.
"What we get in this business is flood plain and ledge, when you get down to it, because the second home and vacation market is so robust any home site gets snatched up," Geller told the committee.
In Stockbridge, the CDCSB partnered with the Stockbridge Land Trust and the Stockbridge Housing Authority to develop the Pine Woods development on land acquired from private ownership for the purpose of development.
Williamstown's AHC was particularly interested in the mechanics of building housing in a wetland because it is looking to develop two town-owned sites that have water issues: the former PhoTech mill property on Cole Avenue that is in a flood plain and 59 Water St. (the former town garage site), part of which is within 100 feet of the Green River.
"It can be done and can be done, I think pretty successfully," Geller said of developments in a flood plain.
Of course, almost anything is possible for the right price, and the Pine Woods homes, which are built on piers, are more expensive than similarly sized homes built on slabs would be, Geller said.
"Obviously, there's a cost," he said.
But with financing in place from a wide variety of sources — primarily low-income housing tax credits — the CDCSB built 14 buildings to house residents and a community center, all on piers to elevate the structures at least 2 1/2 feet off the ground.
The development features one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom units. Five are market-rate properties and the remaining 25 are subsidized and income-specific. Residents in the subsidized units earn anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent of the area median Income as determined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The units average about 1,000 square feet, and there are about two per building. But Geller said technique of building on piers could be used to erect much larger multi-family structures. The AHC has discussed relatively high-density development on the 1.27-acre Water Street site.
Committee member Leigh Short, an engineer, agreed that piers can accommodate much larger buildings.
"You can build oil refineries with 500-ton reactors," Short said. "I've designed them."
Geller said there were some hangups initially at Pine Woods with surface drainage. But the development, completed in 2006, has been modified. He advised the committee to practice careful planning to avoid such fixes down the road.
That prompted a good-natured exchange between a couple of committee members.
"He said a key sentence: You have to have a good engineer," Short noted.
"That's your answer to everything," chided AHC Chairwoman Catherine Yamamoto.
The committee also sought answers from Geller on non-engineering questions, like the economics of Pine Woods.
He explained that the five market-rate units rent for about $650 a month, and CDCSB has had no trouble finding tenants.
Above, the layout for the Pine Woods development in Stockbridge; left, piers lifted the buildings above the floodplain.
"We have almost zero percent vacancy [for rentals] in South County," Geller said. "There is a great demand for apartments. Market-rate units were rented up before the subsidized units."
The AHC also pressed Geller for details on financing, and he shared the array of funding sources CDCSB and its partners used. A project's financing can determine the end users who are eligible to live there, he said.
"It's almost like every unit [at Pine Woods] has a different description of who can go in it," Geller said. "For instance, there's a funding source called the Facilities Consolidation Fund, and it's for units for people who qualify because of some kind of mental health issue. You have to designate that unit, and that person has to go in that unit."
The committee asked Geller whether a developer can give preference to certain populations based on geography — a particular concern in Williamstown as it figures out how to supply replacement housing for residents who lost (and will lose) their homes at the Spruces Mobile Home Park.
Geller said projects cannot be restricted to a certain class of applicants, but certain populations can be given priority in filling available units.
"You do a weighted lottery for units," he said. "You can't have quotas ... but you can have a lottery that's weighted for town residency — if you work in town, live in town, have family in town."
That said, Geller said in reality most affordable housing units are filled by people with ties to community with or without weighted lotteries.
"The notion that people will come from Springfield or Holyoke ... it's not real in the real world," Geller said. "Virtually every family in these units was in the region to begin with."