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Williamstown Affordable Housing Committee Looks Ahead

By Stephen DravisWilliamstown Correspondent
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The Affordable Housing Committee's newest member, Craig Clemow.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — While it waits for developers to pitch ideas to build housing on two town-owned properties, the Affordable Housing Committee turned its attention Thursday to some other continuing projects and started talking about what is next for the panel.
"We've worked to establish a Housing Trust, we put out [requests for proposals], we did the housing needs assessment ... something we need to do now is a housing plan," Chairwoman Catherine Yamamoto said.
Yamamoto suggested that the committee begin formulating a comprehensive plan for housing in town that could be incorporated into the towns Master Plan, a document last revised in 2002.
In the meantime, the committee reviewed a couple of ongoing projects it is tackling while anticipating the Friday, March 7, deadline for proposals to develop the former Town Garage site (59 Water St.) and the former Photech mill site (330 Cole Ave.).
Committee member Charles Bonenti reported on work he undertook with Affordable Housing Trust member Tom Sheldon and Higher Ground case manager Susan Puddester. The three have been researching grant and loan programs that could be used to fund affordable housing efforts in town.
Bonenti explained that the sources broke into three main categories: major and minor grants that support towns or non-profits and homeowner assistance programs, primarily loans.
The first two types of funding are being pursued by groups like the trust, the town's subsidized housing funding body, and Higher Ground, a non-profit created in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene. Bonenti said the committee can publicize the loan programs directly to those who could benefit.
"In most cases, the applicants will have to go to the funding sources themselves," he said. "My thought is by putting information up on the website, we're giving the public information to follow through."
The committee's website was another topic of discussion on Thursday.
Committee member Cheryl Shanks outlined a redesign she hopes to carry out with the help of Town Manager Peter Fohlin to make sure the committee's page on the town's website is easy to use and informative.
In addition to the loan information, the committee wants to include information on the 147 units of subsidized housing already in town as well as two projects in the pipeline: the Cable Mills housing development (with 13 units of affordable housing) that plans to break ground this summer and the 40-unit Highland Woods project, which is hoping to receive substantial funding from low-income housing tax credits to be awarded next month.
Yamamoto also suggested the committee include a glossary of affordable housing terms that she acquired at a conference last June. She suggested it would help residents understand the myriad terms in the field — from "affordable housing" itself to what constitutes "fair market rents."
The committee's newest member may benefit as well. At one point in Thursday's meeting, Craig Clemow, who was appointed to the committee by the Selectmen last month, interrupted Yamamoto to ask her to spell out more acronyms for the uninitiated and anyone watching the meeting on the town's public access television station, WilliNet.
In other business on Thursday, the committee accepted a report from Scarafoni Associates, the developer of the Church Corner Apartments on Cole Avenue. The developer reported the eight-unit development, was a little more successful than anticipated and was serving the demographic the committee intended to serve when it fostered the project in 2011.
"They had a very low vacancy rate," Yamamoto said, reading from the report. "They expected a vacancy loss of 3 percent every year, and they came in under that. I think the vacancy loss was 2 percent."
The units are occupied by families ranging in size from one to five people. All but one has a woman as head of household. The average age of the head of household is 58.6 years, and the average household income is about $31,000.
"Church Corner is doing what we meant it to do," Yamamoto said. "It's serving this segment of the population, and I think by all reports they're pleased with the facility."
Scarafoni informed the committee that it intends to raise raise rents by 1.5 percent to make up for increased costs from higher property taxes. Without the rent increase, Church Corner would face an annual deficit of more than $700, the developer said. Tenants would see the increase take effect as their leases are renewed.
The committee noted it has no power to stop the increase, but members agreed that it sounded reasonable and noted that individual tenants could appeal to the landlord if they found the increase to be burdensome.

Tags: affordable housing,   

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