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The board of the Williamstown Affordable Housing Trust meets on Wednesday.

Williamstown Housing Trust Looks to Spread Word About Rental Assistance Program

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The board of the Affordable Housing Trust on Wednesday talked about how it can reach more potential beneficiaries of its emergency rental assistance program and how it can structure a companion program for homeowners.
To date, the Williamstown Emergency Rental Assistance Program, funded by the trust and administered by Berkshire Housing Development Corp., has awarded just more than $17,000 in grants since its inception.
"There also is one pending $1,500 award waiting for some documentation," said Liz Costley, who serves as the trust's liaison to the Pittsfield non-profit. "You can see that's a second-time support for a restaurant worker in town, It may be increased depending on the conversation between the renter and the caseworker at Berkshire Housing.
"It's a hard time for a restaurant worker. They're trying to get more hours, but it's difficult, as you might imagine."
The trust recently transferred an additional $30,000 to BHDC to keep the program funded. But the trustees expressed concern that demand for the program, created for residents impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, has not been higher.
Dan Gura asked if the application process could be streamlined to avoid discouraging prospective beneficiaries.
Costley said that early on there was one report of an applicant who dropped out of the process because they were overwhelmed by paperwork, but that appeared to be an isolated incident.
"Beyond that, as far as I know, all those who have applied and gone through the system have received funding," she said. "It's not like 30 applied and only the six you see were accepted.
"I did have that discussion early with Berkshire Housing. Their point to me is if you can submit the basic information — name, phone number, address — just to get it in the system, they can help with the form. But that's hard to communicate to the public."
The trust has reached out to local landlords so they can let their tenants know about the assistance program, and it continues to seek other avenues to spread the word. Information has been placed at the Williamstown Food Pantry and the Post Office, but the same pandemic that the WERAP looks to address hampers efforts to publicize it.
"We can't put it in the library anymore," Costley said, referencing the fact that the library is limited to pickups and dropoffs only for the foreseeable future.
"Have we talked to Dollar General about putting something up there … as well as all the gas stations in town?" Gura asked. "I think you want to put [information] in places where people with lower incomes actually go. I'm not sure the Post Office is one of those. Dollar General, to me, is kind of a no-brainer. Gas stations are a no-brainer.
"I don't know how many of them would say yes, but those are places where people who are struggling with this are likely to go. I'd go so far as to ask Stop & Shop as well."
Gura volunteered to contact a couple of the businesses he mentioned.
Meanwhile, he and Ruth Harrison are serving as leads on the trust's next initiative, an emergency mortgage assistance program.
After getting the rental program up and running last year, the trustees recognized that homeowners might be similarly impacted by the economic crisis spurred by the pandemic, and they committed to figuring out a way to get grants to income-qualified residents who are having trouble making mortgage payments due to COVID-19.
Most of Wednesday's meeting was given over to talking about the mechanics of how such a program could work.
The trustees agreed that they want a third-party to qualify recipients for the grants, thus mirroring the other two initiatives, the rental assistance program and the DeMayo Mortgage Assistance Program for first-time homeowners.
In the case of the latter, which is limited to borrowers from lending institutions with a physical presence in town, the bank or credit union screens applicants for eligibility and brings applications to the trust's board for final approval. It gets trickier with the emergency mortgage assistance program because existing homeowners could have loans through any number of lenders — local, regional or national.
Chair Tom Sheldon told his colleagues that the local partners already have said they would be willing to screen applicants for the emergency grants, and the trust has talked about asking Berkshire Housing to screen applicants with loans from other lenders.
Gura said it might be a good idea to have all applications — including those for mortgages that originated locally — screened by a third party.
"I think you'd have to put a lot of the liability on [the local banks] if mistakes were made," Gura said. "They may not want to be effectively affirming grants to themselves. An honest error could look like significant fraud."
Gura and Harrison made plans to talk with the local lenders and a Berkshire Housing employee who has experience working with homeowners who need assistance.
The full board agreed to meet again  or before Jan. 27 in an effort to finalize the emergency mortgage assistance program as soon as possible.

Tags: affordable housing trust,   

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