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Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity's Paul Austin, right, addresses the Williamstown Affordable Housing Trust as Trustee Patrick Quinn looks on.

Williamstown Housing Trust Puts Questions to Habitat for Humanity

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The board of the town's Affordable Housing Trust on Wednesday gathered information from the lone respondent to a request for proposals to develop housing on two parcels owned by the trust.
 
Five members of the board of Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity were at Town Hall to offer additional information to support the proposal it made to build a one-family home on Cole Avenue and one or two homes on a Summer Street parcel.
 
After discussing the project for a little less than an hour, the trustees decided to hold off on formally accepting the bid. Instead, Trustee Stanley Parese and Habitat board member Elisabeth Goodman — both real estate attorneys — will start hammering out an agreement so that the two sides will be closer to signing formal paperwork before the board's vote trips a 30-day window stipulated in the RFP.
 
"The board also has not gone through and formally evaluated the proposal," Chairman Thomas Sheldon noted. "I'm supremely optimistic about the outcome of that, but I do think we have to go through that process."
 
At one point in the meeting, Sheldon said a deal with the nonprofit would be a "dream coming true for us" — a dream that could be realized as soon as Aug. 9.
 
If that happens, Habitat hopes to break ground at the Cole Avenue site next spring, Habitat President Paul Austin told the trustees.
 
"Since these are new houses, we would be looking at a 15-month construction on each, recognizing we use volunteer labor," Austin said.
 
The nonprofit's timeline was one of the followup questions the board had after initially reviewing the RFP last month.
 
Another concern dealt with the potential impact on the neighborhoods.
 
Parese, who put questions to the nonprofit based on the trustees' initial meeting, noted that both the board and Habitat for Humanity have an interest in building projects that are desirable.
 
"We will probably have a meeting, probably after a draft of the first design," Austin said. "We'll get the neighbors together and talk to them about what their feelings are."
 
"There would be openness to modifying the design?" Sheldon asked.
 
"Yes, we want to be good neighbors," Austin said.
 
Goodman noted that Habitat has recently completed several houses on West Shaft Road in North Adams, in addition to past projects in Williamstown, and suggested the nonprofit set up walking tours for the Affordable Housing trustees.
 
"We'd like to do that," Sheldon said. "That doesn't obviate the need for the neighbors to have their own comfort level with the project. They need an opportunity to hear from you and ask questions."
 
Goodman noted that the AHT's request for proposal does not specify the need for a public review of the design. But Parese pointed out it does require the home to be "consistent" with the neighborhood and that the final design needs the trustees' approval.
 
"The larger reality is … if the Trust had not bought these lots or we had no takers and then sold these plots and put the money in our treasury, these lots are in residential zones," Parese said. "When someone buys a lot in a residential zone, typically, you build whatever you want to build.
 
"We don't want the public to look at it and say, 'Why did they let this happen?' And you, as Habitat for Humanity, don't want that either."
 
One Cole Avenue resident attended Wednesday's meeting as an observer, but he did not ask to address the board.
 
Trustee Liz Costley asked the representatives from Northern Berkshire Habitat whether they considered a multi-family home on the Cole Avenue location. In the past, members of the board have expressed the hope that it could maximize the homeownership opportunities on the properties it purchased in 2015.
 
Austin responded that the property at the corner of Cole and Water Maple Streets is too small for a multi-family home that would leave room for yards for each family.
 
As for the Summer Street parcel, Austin said his nonprofit needs to do some engineering work at the site to see whether it could accommodate multiple single family units. He said that given some wetland on the site, it is unclear how much buildable land is there.
 
In other business on Wednesday, Sheldon informed his colleagues that a potential application under the trust's mortgage assistance program did not come to fruition. And he said the unsuccessful application pointed to something the trust may want to consider as it tweaks the rules for the 3-year-old program named for deceased trustee Richard DeMayo.
 
"The [recent] applicant presented her case for a grant, and it looked like it was approvable," Sheldon said. "She was set to submit the paperwork, and it turned out she was getting married that weekend, and the family income was going to double. The application never came in."
 
The grants, designed for first-time homebuyers, are income sensitive.
 
"This does suggest something that could happen right after the receipt of a grant," Sheldon said. "That's further grist for those of us considering changes to the guidelines for the DeMayo program."

Tags: affordable housing trust,   habitat for humanity,   

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