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Williamstown Housing Trust to Partner with Berkshire Housing on Rental Assistance Program

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The board of the Affordable Housing Trust on Monday decided unanimously to partner with Pittsfield's Berkshire Housing Development Corp. on an emergency rental assistance program in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The six trustees designated a working group of three members to work out the final details of the program in hopes of getting it up and running in early May.
At Monday's meeting, the trustees reviewed a set of program guidelines previously worked out with BHDC President and CEO Elton Ogden.
The program is restricted to residents of rental properties in Williamstown who make 100 percent or below the area median income and have "suffered financial setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic."
That includes, of course, households who have suffered a loss in income due to layoffs related to the pandemic, but board member Liz Costley noted there are other kinds of setbacks.
"If you suddenly had more adult residents move back to your household … you might have kept your job but you suddenly could see an increase in expenses," she said.
As discussed at Monday's meeting, the grants would range from $500 to $1,000. The $500 is consistent with the general distribution from the Neighbor-to-Neighbor grant program administered by the Berkshire Taconic Foundation.
The trust has about $20,700 in unrestricted funds at its disposal to devote to the program. It decided to give Berkshire Housing a grant of $18,000 with another $2,700, or 15 percent of the grant total, to cover BHDC's administrative costs.
Using the infrastructure already in place at Berkshire Housing -- which would cut checks directly to the landlords of grant recipients -- ensures that the grants will help people who are properly income-qualified, the board believes. It also would maintain the privacy of applicants and ensure that their names and addresses would be unknown to members of the trust board.
Chairman Thomas Sheldon said the most recently available area median income, determined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, for Berkshire County ranges from $55,230 for a single resident to $104,148 for a family of eight. For a family of four, the area median income is $78,900.
While residents making 100 percent of the AMI would be eligible, preference would be given to residents making 80 percent or less, or $63,120 for a family of four under the current HUD regulations.
Preference also would be given to town residents in market-rate rentals, as opposed to those living in subsidized housing.
"In subsidized housing, as income decreases, rent should decrease," Costley said. "So at this point, the thinking is to give priority to those living in non-subsidized housing."
Costley, Sheldon and Patrick Quinn worked out the preliminary guidelines with BHDC's Ogden. The board Monday decided to authorize Costley, Sheldon and Stanley Parese, a practicing attorney, to work out the final language. If there is a major issue that arises in the final discussions, the group of three will seek approval from the full board before finalizing the application.
The board hopes to get that application into circulation as quickly as possible. In addition to posting an application online, the board discussed putting hard copies at the Post Office and the Williamstown Food Pantry in order to reach residents who may not have access to the internet.
Although it only has funds to support $18,000 in grants -- or 36 beneficiaries at $500 per grant -- the board is hopeful that Williamstown's annual town meeting, currently postponed to a date to be announced, will approve a $75,000 grant of Community Preservation Act funds already OK'd by the town's Community Preservation Committee.
If those funds become available while the COVID-19 crisis still is impacting residents, the trust's intention is to continue funding the emergency rental assistance program.
And even if demand for the program outstrips supply, there is value in accepting applications from residents harmed by the pandemic, Costley said.
"The other thing that was impressive when we talked to Elton [Ogden] was he sees the application for the program as an assessment tool," she said. "They have a holistic approach to working with tenants and landlords, and they foresee trying to work with landlords, perhaps to have a rental reduction, and working with tenants so they're aware of finding all the programs that could be applicable to them.
"Elton saw it as more than emergency assistance  but sort of a counseling service for how people could find other funding opportunities. That was really reassuring and extremely professional and helpful."

Tags: affordable housing,   affordable housing trust,   

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Williamstown Panel Looks at Context of Historic Monuments

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff

A sign erected by the Williamstown Historical Commission to recognize the site of the 18th Century West Hoosac Fort.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town's newest committee Monday got down to the business of finding ways to talk about the truth of the Village Beautiful's founding.
The Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee discussed two historical markers and whether they do more to sanitize that history and marginalize Native Americans than they do to educate the public.
Lauren Stevens of the 1753 House Committee told the DIRE Committee that his group has discussed how to properly contextualize one of the highest profile structures in town, a replica of an 18th-century dwelling built in 1953 with period-specific techniques to help celebrate the town's centennial.
"Bilal [Ansari] was talking at the Friday afternoon Black Lives Matter rally, and he mentioned in a passing reference to the 1753 House that there were, indeed, people in this area before those being honored by the settlement in 1753," Stevens said.
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