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Work continues Friday on the affordable housing project being built at 330 Cole Ave. in Williamstown.

Williamstown CPC Seeks Requests; Big One Is on the Way

By Stephen Dravis
iBerkshires Staff
01:35AM / Monday, November 23, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Community Preservation Committee on Thursday discussed whether it should reach out to potential applicants for funding in the fiscal 2022 cycle.
 
But one frequent applicant was slightly ahead of the game.
 
The Affordable Housing Trust, which has received CPC funds from town meeting each year since its inception in 2012, decided on Wednesday to this winter submit a request for $175,000 in new funding.
 
At the same time, the trustees plan to ask town meeting to release more than $19,000 in CPA funds previously allocated to the trust but restricted to a specific program that has not been utilized.
 
In total, the trustees of the Affordable Housing Trust hope to ask town meeting for access to nearly $200,000 in new or newly unrestricted funds, according to the application the board discussed on Wednesday. That would approximate the $200,000 town meeting gave the trust in each of its first two years and come at a time when the trustees anticipate more need than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
The $175,000 request may come as good news to the CPC, which on Thursday learned the town expects to have $324,482 in Community Preservation Act funds to allocate in FY22.
 
That number includes about $104,000 in carryover from last year, an anticipated $268,000 in revenue from the town's self-imposed 2 percent surcharge on property taxes (exempting the first $100,000 of valuation) and an expected $70,000 in state matching funds. And it nets out a $121,000 principal and interest payment for the town's contribution to the Cable Mills project.
 
The CPC screens applications to make sure, among other things, that they meet at least one of the stated purposes of the act: community housing, historic preservation, open space and recreation. It then sends the approved applications to town meeting for a final decision.
 
Coming off a year when the panel saw an unusually low number of applications, one member of the CPC was concerned about a repeat for the 2021 annual town meeting.
 
"I would suggest we put our heads together to encourage applicants," said Philip McKnight, a longtime member of the CPC who was elected chair at Thursday's meeting. "First, we could go to those who have been before us before and remind them that application season is upon us."
 
On Thursday, the committee approved a Jan. 8 deadline for applications for the FY22 cycle.
 
"I worry that if we have too much money [in reserve], there will be a suggestion, perhaps through town meeting, that we drop out of the [Community Preservation Act] program because of lack of interest, or that we drop the percentage [of the surcharge]," McKnight said. "We have to stay relevant, and we have to stay vital."
 
The Community Preservation Act allows municipalities to set the local CPA surcharge between 1 percent and 3 percent. It also has a mechanism for towns and cities to withdraw from the CPA program.
 
To help explain the program to prospective applicants, the CPC again this year will hold a couple of pre-application workshops where interested parties can get informal feedback from committee members about a project they may be considering. Past projects funded by the town with CPA funds have included preservation of artifacts the Williamstown Historical Museum, restoration of gravestones and accessibility upgrades at the Sand Springs Recreation Center.
 
Town Manager Jason Hoch, a voting member of the CPC, said the town does make informal reminders to groups that have been successful applicants in the past when a new funding cycle is coming up.
 
"The challenge, in some ways, is finding the ways to get it on the radar screen of people who haven't been to us before," Hoch said. "That's actually, hopefully, one of the potential advantages of the pre-application meeting. If this peaks someone's interest and they're wondering if their project fits … it's a perfect time to spend some time with us and talk about it."
 
Joe Finnegan suggested that the Chamber of Commerce could help promote the application period through its weekly email. But he also said that a strong CPA reserve might not be an impediment to the program.
 
"There has been at times in the past a case made for saving bigger sums for bigger projects," Finnegan said. "The Cole Avenue project is an example. I don't feel the pressure to give the money away just to be relevant.
 
"Cole Avenue is, to me, the most impactful thing we've done. It was probably the biggest chunk we've given in a while, and we all drive by it every day. It's amazing what's going on."
 
In May 2019, the town awarded $200,000 in CPA funds to Berkshire Housing Development Corporation toward the development of affordable housing at the former site of the Photech mill at 330 Cole Ave.
 
As for the "big ticket" request already in the pipeline for FY22, the Affordable Housing Trust trustees believe their record of success in utilizing CPA funds will give weight to their application. The AHT has, among other things, purchased two residential lots with the intention of building up to four homes — one of which already well underway through partner Habitat for Humanity — and created the Richard DeMayo Mortgage Assistance Program, which has helped 20 first-time homeowners purchase homes in the town. Last year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the trust instituted the Williamstown Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
 
In the application the trustees discussed on Wednesday, AHT Chair Tom Sheldon included another potential initiative for 2021, one that would help existing income-qualified homeowners impacted by the pandemic stay in their homes — either through direct mortgage assistance or help paying utilities or other expenses.
 
That idea is in its infancy, Sheldon noted.
 
"My instinct is once this board has endorsed the concept for the application, even before getting enmeshed with the CPC and its decision making process, it would be time to reach out to the local lending institutions and see if there's an analagous arrangement that can be put in place," Sheldon said. "There may be nuances about how lenders feel about this kind of transaction with an existing client who has an existing note.
 
"Until we explore it with them, we won't know if we're dealing with something that is a slam dunk or something that is more complicated."
 
Lenders with officers in Williamstown are eligible to bring applicants to the AHT under its Mortgage Assistance Program. The banks do the screening to make sure that applicants qualify under the program's guidelines.
 
If the banks are not comfortable taking a similar role with existing borrowers, the trust could explore other avenues, like collaborating with a non-profit, as it did with Berkshire Housing on the rental program, Sheldon said.
 
Either way, the idea of a new program to assist homeowners impacted by the coronavirus is an example of how unrestricted funds in the hands of the Affordable Housing Trust allows for quick response to needs that arise, Sheldon said.
 
"It underscores the utility of a trust in a town because we have the nimbleness, the flexibility to do things without having to go to town meeting to get funding or approval," he said.

Tags: affordable housing trust,   CPA,   housing,   

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