WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The non-profit looking to build permanent homes for first-time homeowners needs a little temporary shelter of its own.
Habitat for Humanity, which was chosen by the town's Affordable Housing Trust to build two single-family homes at the corner of Cole Avenue and Maple Street, is looking for help from a local resident or business.
"What they would like to do is, if they can find a large space to do some pre-construction of walls and things like that in the winter, it will give them a headstart for next year," Patrick Quinn said at last week's meeting of the trust board.
"If anyone knows of a space or has one here in Williamstown, which would be preferable for transport, contact Paul Austin at Habitat for Humanity."
Quinn reported to his fellow trustees that Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity is on schedule to break ground for the first Maple Street home in the spring.
Originally, it had targeted spring 2018, and at one point it was hoped to get going in the fall. But the latter plan was rejected because of the complication of interrupting work for the winter, Quinn said.
And the project might have gotten going faster if not for the delay in getting approval from the commonwealth under the Chapter 40B provision of Massachusetts' General Laws.
"If this lot was just a little bit bigger, we would not have needed 40B because there would have been the potential for two zoning-compliant lots," Trustee Stan Parese explained in a meeting telecast on the town's community access television station, WilliNet. "At that point, the application to the commonwealth is vastly simple. But for 50 square feet or so …"
Without that additional space, a 40B exception is the cleanest way to develop the two building lots on the parcel that the trust purchased a couple of years ago with the intent of building owner-occupied, moderate-income housing.
Quinn said the town's partners at Habitat for Humanity plan to first develop the lot at the "bottom" of the property, farther from Cole Avenue.
"The selected family has children, and the lower level will provide more play space," Quinn said.
While that initiative moves forward, the more recent partnership between the trust and Habitat for Humanity has run into a legal snag of its own.
Town meeting in May approved a $20,000 expenditure of Community Preservation Act funds to help income-qualified residents purchase materials to make home repairs under Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity's Critical Repairs Program.
But town counsel has returned an opinion that questions whether taxpayer money can be allocated to support such a program.
Parese, an attorney, agreed with his fellow trustees that the hangup involves, in part, the term "rehabilitation," which is defined under MGL and which is a prohibited use of public funds on private property.
"The risk to the town is if the Department of Revenue determines it was an improper use of CPA money, the town has to replace it," Parese said.
Reading from the town attorney's opinion, Sheldon said it found that CPA funds cannot be used "for the sole benefit of homeowners."
One possible workaround suggested in the counsel's opinion is to distribute the assistance in the form of a mortgage that would sit on the property until such time as it changes hands. At that point, the grant — currently capped at $2,500 — would be returned to the town from the proceeds of the sale.
That would not be dissimilar to the way the trust has distributed funds under its mortgage assistance program. In that case, the grant money is paid back to the town if the first-time homebuyer resells the home in question within five years of purchase.
The board agreed to ask Town Manager Jason Hoch for permission to let Parese call the town counsel to try to get more clarity on the question.
In other business at its Aug. 1 meeting, the AHT board decided unanimously to award a $14,000 grant under the Richard DeMayo Mortgage Assistance Program. The funds will be used to help a lifelong Williamstown resident who is starting a job in law enforcement in a nearby community purchase his first home, bank representatives told the trustees.
After the vote, Maureen Baran of Adams Community Bank thanked the AHT for its work creating and administering the grant program.
"These grants have been instrumental in allowing us and the other banks involved to be able to get some nice, qualified first-time homebuyers into Williamstown," Baran said. "I know this is the last [of the grants] right now, but I hope we'll be able to work together."
AHT Treasurer Ruth Harrison reported to the board that the trust has just more than $20,500 in its account — not including the $20,000 appropriation from the 2018 Annual Town Meeting earmarked for the repairs program. That means the trust has decided, for now, not to accept any applications under the DeMayo program.
"It's incumbent on us to stretch our thinking in terms of funding for that," Sheldon said. "I'm presuming, though we haven't talked about it, that this would be the predicate for an application for a Community Preservation grant in the 2019 cycle.
"I think we have a very strong case to make, an I think we need to continue to look at other possible funding. … I believe there are families out there who are very close, and this [grant] may mean in some cases they can't proceed [with home ownership]. We found under almost all the grants that our funds were the difference between succeeding or not."
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