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Williamstown Housing Trust Setting Up Emergency Rental Assistance Program

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — As early as Monday, the board of the Affordable Housing Trust could be ready to move forward with a plan to fund a rental assistance program for residents struggling to pay their bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
For two weeks, the board has discussed how best to deploy about $20,000 in unrestricted funds in the trust's coffers.
 
On April 1, it voted unanimously to suspend its Richard DeMayo Mortgage Assistance Program. One week later, the board members discussed various options, from creating an "in-house" emergency aid program to partnering with another agency that had the procedures in place to vet applicants.
 
On Monday afternoon, the board will meet with a single item on its agenda: to discuss and decide on "whether to enter into an agreement to fund a program of rental assistance to aid residents of Williamstown."
 
At the April 8 meeting, the board designated a working group of Patrick Quinn, Liz Costley and Chair Thomas Sheldon to draft a set of guidelines that could be used in such an agreement.
 
The Williamstown body repeatedly pointed to the Lenox Affordable Housing Trust's COVID-19 Rental Assistance Program as a model for the kind of program it wanted to create.
 
Williamstown's trust, which is funded entirely by proceeds from the Community Preservation Act, has about $40,700 in its accounts, but $20,000 of that is restricted for use in coordination with Northern Berkshire Habitat for Humanity's Critical Repairs Program.
 
Sheldon reminded his board at recent meetings that the restricted funds can only be used for the purpose designated in a town meeting vote in 2018. That year, the Community Preservation Committee, which reviews CPA funding requests, advised the trust against seeking unrestricted funds and instead to focus on requests that were designated for a specific program.
 
Since then, the CPC has looked more favorably on the unrestricted requests, but the 2018 allocation is still tied to its original purpose.
 
The AHT this year is seeking $75,000 in unrestricted funds, a request already approved by the CPC and sent to town meeting … which now has been postponed from its original May 19 meeting due to the pandemic.
 
That leaves the trust with about $20,000 to devote to the emergency assistance program until at least some time this summer.
 
Last week, it discussed a couple of potential partners to help distribute those funds to town residents in need. Among the options considered were the Williamstown Housing Authority, the Berkshire-Taconic Community Foundation, the Williamstown Community Chest and Berkshire Housing Development Corporation.
 
One partner it considered but decided could not work was Great Barrington-based Construct Inc., the non-profit that helped the Lenox AHT develop its emergency rental assistance program.
 
"It's an impressive organization," Trustee Stan Parese said of Construct. "It's been around for 50 years. But they're very explicit that they're a South County enterprise."
 
Sheldon agreed.
 
"They even spill over into Connecticut," he said. "That's in [Construct's] strategic plan and service area definition. I realized we could learn from them but not lean on them."
 
The goal of the trust has been to follow the same path it used to create a mortgage assistance program: find a partner who can verify the income qualifications of applicants and recommend recipients to the board for final approval.
 
The AHT board considered doing either an emergency program for either renters or homeowners or both but ultimately decided to focus on the renters.
 
There was some question of whether the CPA funds could be expended to help pay a mortgage on a private home that is not deed-restricted as affordable housing. Although Parese, an attorney, said he thought such an expenditure would be allowable under the Community Preservation Act, the board ultimately decided it was more expedient to focus on renters for now.
 
"What I've heard tonight is a cautionary note about things being more complicated with a homeowner and a mortgage as opposed to a renter," Sheldon said. "We know lenders are doing certain things now — not necessarily forgiving moneys owed but deferring moneys owed. They also, as we've learned, are pretty creative at finding other sources that might help people, especially if they're already on board as a homeowner, not to get into foreclosure."
 
Sheldon suggested that the AHT prioritize renters right now to get the emergency program established and leave the door open to adding mortgagers down the line, especially if the trust is granted more funds from town meeting.
 
Parese agreed.
 
"The local banks with which we deal, in particular, I think are going to be very understanding in this moment," he said. "Even the national lenders, if there starts to be a rush of foreclosure-type behavior, they'll end up with some type of moratorium at the federal or state level that controls that. … It's a lot less time-consuming to trigger an eviction than a foreclosure, though neither is easy in Massachusetts.
 
"As Tom pointed out, a bank really does not want to own a house. And I suppose in some ways [limiting the program to renters] would streamline the program we're trying to construct."

Tags: affordable housing,   affordable housing trust,   

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Mount Greylock Committee Member Pushes to Reopen Schools

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff

Steven Miller participates in a recent meeting of the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee via Zoom.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The chair of the Mount Greylock School Committee's Education Subcommittee on Tuesday repeatedly pressed the district's interim superintendent to develop benchmarks that could be met in order to allow a return to full in-person instruction.
 
For now, school officials are planning to begin school in mid-September in a hybrid model that sees half the students in preK through ninth grade attending classes in person two days a week with the rest of their time on learning spent remotely; sophomores through seniors in high school would attend school one day a week under the current plan.
 
Several times during a more than two-hour virtual meeting, Steven Miller reiterated his contention that the Lanesborough-Williamstown district is uniquely situated to move to full, in-person instruction.
 
"We are in a wonderful situation where we are in a rural setting with people who are responsible, who are socially distancing and wearing masks," said Miller, who also referred to the county's low incidence of COVID-19 positive tests.
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