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Williamstown Housing Trust Modifies Rental Assistance Program

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Liz Costley participates in Thursday's meeting of the board of the Williamstown Affordable Housing Trust.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The board of the town's Affordable Housing Trust last week voted to raise the maximum allowable grant from its Emergency Rental Assistance Program to $2,500 with the prospect to hike the limit again in the near future.
The board created the emergency program in the spring to help residents impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It set a cap of $1,000 per dispersal for the program, which is being administered by Berkshire Housing Development Corporation.
The WERAP was created with enough funds to support about $18,000 in grants. To date, two recipients have received grants at the full $1,000 level, but three more applicants are currently under consideration, Berkshire Housing's Jane Pixley told the Trustees on Thursday evening.
After consulting with Liz Costley, the board's liaison to Berkshire Housing, Pixley asked the full panel if it wanted to consider raising the limit to make the grant more effective.
"The two folks who needed $1,000, their crisis was pretty much solved with that benefit, which is not to say that going forward they may not have other issues," Pixley said. "The three households we are holding in limbo right now, all three are going to need a little more than $1,000 to cure their rent arrears.
"The concern then is if we make them whole with $1,500, they're still struggling and won't be able to make their August payment or September payment. We like to stipend households a little forward until they can come up with some other resources."
By means of comparison, Pixley said that the commonwealth's RAFT (Rental Assistance for Families in Transition) program, which Berkshire Housing also administers, has a $4,000 limit per recipient.
The board spent considerable time in Thursday's virtual meeting grappling with the question of whether it wanted to raise its program's limit and by how much.
"I think that $2,000 is certainly a reasonable number," Ruth Harrison said. "The $4,000 would be great, but, as we know what we have left in our account is restricted funds, so we don't have anything else to put in the [rental assistance] bucket."
The Affordable Housing Trust has about $20,000 of Community Preservation Act funds in its coffers that were allocated for specific purposes. Its request for $75,000 in unrestricted CPA funds was endorsed this winter by the Community Preservation Committee, but those funds will not be accessible until after the annual town meeting, which was postponed to Aug. 18 due to the pandemic. 
"Globally, even $4,000 is not going to fix everything," Pixley said. "So you ought to be mindful and utilize this in the best way you can knowing that this problem is bigger than all of us anyway."
Although Gov. Charlie Baker this week extended a moratorium on evictions and mortgage foreclosures by 60 days to mid October, that does not stop the rent bills from piling up. And with the federal government's enhanced unemployment insurance benefits coming to an end this month, Pixley said her agency anticipates a tough August for area residents struggling to make ends meet.
While the AHT waits for August's delayed town meeting to potentially release $75,000 that could replenish its rental assistance program, the board also got word through Chair Tom Sheldon that the town might be able to contribute proceeds from the federal CARES Act to help replace funds spent on COVID-19-related relief programs.
Costley pushed hard for the Trust to expand its program to match the limit of the state's RAFT program.
"I feel as though these are some of our most vulnerable families, and I would love to see it capped at $4,000," Costley said. "I am really feeling like: Let's spend it, let's get reimbursement. This is our time, this is what we're all about. $2,000 just doesn't do it for me.
"Talk me down off the ledge, if you can."
Sheldon said he was reluctant to potentially deplete the rental assistance program's reserve in four grants at the $4,000 level when the trustees are not 100 percent certain that they will be able to access CARES Act funds.
But Anne O'Connor and Patrick Quinn each said they were leaning toward Costley's approach.
"I hear Liz's cry from the heart, and I share that," O'Connor said. "I love the idea of us stepping up and saying to our community we have this money and are ready to make it available to the households that need it now."
"I think Liz is going further than I further than I would have originally thought, but, yeah, I agree," Quinn said.
A fourth member of the six-person board, Ruth Harrison, said she could picture someone walking in the door needing $3,000 to get their family through the crisis right after the board raised the limit to $2,000.
Sheldon suggested a compromise: an immediate raise to $2,500, which would allow for up to six grants at the maximum level, with the intent to raise that cap if the town can provide assurance of available replacement funding.
Costley made a motion to that effect, and the Trustees passed the measure unanimously.

Tags: affordable housing,   

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Mount Greylock Interim Superintendent Proposing Fully Remote Start to School Year

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Mount Greylock Regional School District's interim superintendent Tuesday told the community he will propose the district start the year with fully remote learning for general education students.
In a virtual town hall, Robert Putnam previewed the proposal for the start of school that he will present to the School Committee for a vote on Thursday evening. Districts throughout the commonwealth must present their reopening plans, approved by school committees, to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by Friday.
Putnam emphasized throughout his presentation that all of his plans for the preK-12, three school district are still subject to negotiation with the district's teachers union. He mentioned "bargaining" at least four times in his half-hour presentation before addressing attendees' questions.
As he has throughout his six-week tenure as interim superintendent, Putnam said remote learning will be the cornerstone of the district's planning for the 2020-21 school year. And when classes resume in mid-September, Putnam expects remote learning to be the only mode of instruction.
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