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Affordable Housing Trust Chairman Thomas Sheldon.

Williamstown Housing Trust Fast Tracks Grant Program

By Stephen Dravisiberkshires Staff
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Maureen Baran of Adams Community Bank advises the Williamstown Affordable Housing Trust.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- Trustees of the town's Affordable Housing Trust expressed optimism on Wednesday that a new home buyer's assistance program could be in place before the end of the summer.

At its regular monthly meeting, the board reached agreement on about a dozen guidelines that will govern the program, which is aimed at helping people making 80 percent of the area median income become homeowners in town.
The trustees were joined by the senior vice president for business development at Adams Community Bank. Maureen Baran was the second bank official to consult with the board in its development of the program; last month, Williamstown Savings Bank's Mary O'Connell sat down with the panel.
At the outset of Wednesday's meeting, Chairman Thomas Sheldon expressed two concerns that set the tone for the evening.
"My small worry is that if we take a lengthy period of time to develop guidelines and get them approved by town counsel, we could miss the summer real estate market," Sheldon said. "I'm hoping we can do this with all deliberate speed to put this out to assist home buyers and have available to banks as a programmatic option as soon as possible.
"The larger worry is ... I'm not sure Lenox has had an overwhelming response to [a similar] program. So my larger concern is that we shape a program that is as attractive as we possibly can make it to maximize participation.
"My fear is that we throw a party and no one comes."
The Lenox program inspired the Williamstown AHT to look at creating their own earlier this spring.
The trust currently has about $245,000 in its coffers, and it was awarded another $75,000 at May's Annual Town Meeting. All of its funds to date have come from money collected by the town under the Community Preservation Act.
At Wednesday's meeting, the trustees set the framework for a program that would award grants to income-eligible home buyers who have qualified for a loan with a local lending institution.
While the Lenox program sets a maximum grant of $10,000, the Williamstown AHT trustees decided to make higher awards available in order to make the program as attractive as possible.
They were leaning toward a cap of $15,000, although the number $20,000 was still on the table when they moved on to other elements of the program. The hope in the first year is that the trust would be able to award up to seven grants if it can find enough interested prospective buyers.
Another difference between the Williamstown program being developed and the Lenox initiative on which it is modeled: Williamstown's will be available through any bank with a physical presence in the town, the trustees decided on Wednesday.
Lenox's program is available only through Lee Bank.
Baran said there are logistical reasons why it might make sense to deal with a single lender, but the trustees, again with an eye toward maximizing participation, opted to broaden the pool of buyers by increasing the number of lenders.
They considered whether to open the program up to all banks in Berkshire County or Berkshire and Bennington County in Vermont. But Trustee Dick DeMayo argued successfull for sticking to local banks that pay taxes and employ people in the community, at least at the start of the program.
Time and again during Wednesday's meeting, the trustees emphasized that it is a pilot program which likely will be modified down the road.
Trustee Stan Parese referenced Sunday's commencement address at Williams College, in which former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg quoted President Franklin Roosevelt. In a 1932 speech, FDR called for "bold experimentation" in social programs and emphasized that public officials needed to, "above all, try something."
Williamstown's efforts to address a perceived shortage of subsidized housing and lack of economic diversity have been stymied in the last two years by resistance to developing green field and, more recently, by the Board of Selectmen's decision not to develop one of two town-owned brown field sites.
The home buyer assistance program represents another direction for utilizing public funds: helping place income-qualified individuals and families in existing housing stock.
The trustees decided Wednesday to have Sheldon synthesize the guidelines as they discussed them and have Parese, the attorney of the group, review the rules before a special meeting of the board on June 25.

Tags: affordable housing,   

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