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The board of Williamstown's Affordable Housing Trust holds the first in-person meeting Wednesday for a town committee since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Williamstown Housing Trust Launches Emergency Mortgage Aid Program

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Patrick Quinn, left, and Andrew Hogeland, who is attending his first meeting since joining the board of the Affordable Housing Trust.
 
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The board of the town's Affordable Housing Trust made some history on Wednesday evening — and not just because it became the first town board or committee to meet in person since March 2020.
 
It was that, and the feeling in Town Hall was both familiar and surreal for a town grown used to virtual meetings throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
But the real news happened before the meeting began as the trust finalized the second program the trustees developed in hours of Zoom meetings over the last 15 months.
 
"The final document was signed today," Stan Parese said of the paperwork creating the Williamstown Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program.
 
The new initiative is similar to an emergency mortgage assistance program the trust created last year to help renters in town who were adversely affected by the pandemic.
 
Like the rental program, the mortgage assistance program is being administered by Pittsfield's Berkshire Housing Development Corp. with funds provided by the trust.
 
"If you're currently a homeowner and because of a COVID-related economic setback you are struggling in keeping your property … you can reach out to Berkshire Housing or reach out to your lender," Parese said for the benefit of anyone who may watch Wednesday's meeting on the town's community access television station, WilliNet. "There's a term people may be familiar with — if you're in forbearance … and you're income eligible, you can reach out to your bank or Berkshire Housing directly.
 
"Berkshire Housing is serving as a really important go-between between our funds and your needs."
 
The income-eligibility requirements are slightly different between the rental and mortgage assistance programs.
 
The former requires recipients to be at or below 80 percent of the Area Median Income as determined by the federal government. Currently, for a household of three people in Williamstown, that figure stands at $63,900, Parese reported on Wednesday.
 
The mortgage assistance program is available to households making up to 100 percent of the AMI (currently $79,900 for a family of three).
 
Chair Tom Sheldon explained that the difference in limits is due to forces outside the board's control. The provisions of federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funding (which is being used to replenish the trust's expenditures) is 80 percent for rental assistance programs. There is no corollary for mortgage programs; but all of the trust's initial funding comes from the town's Community Preservation Act coffers, and those are restricted to beneficiaries who make up to 100 percent AMI.
 
On Wednesday, Liz Costley, who has served as the trust's liaison to Berkshire Housing for the emergency rental assistance program, reported that there were no applications for the aid since the board last met. But she said BHDC's special programs case manager indicated that is not because need does not exist.
 
"Right now there is lots of available federal funding [for renters]," Costley said. "She said she's glad that we're initiating a fund for homeowners. This is a group not as well served as tenants."
 
Later in the meeting, Sheldon reiterated an often-feared hope that once federal COVID relief programs expire, local initiatives like the trust's will be needed more than ever.
 
"The beginning of 2022, I think the need will be more pronounced as various aid programs expire," Sheldon said.
 
In the meantime, the trustees encouraged residents who are having trouble paying for their housing due to the pandemic to check with Berkshire Housing (413-499-1630) to see what program might help.
 
In other business on Wednesday, the AHT board's newest member asked whether the panel wants to advocate for a couple of proposals in Boston that would create an additional funding stream for local housing trusts.
 
One is a statewide excise tax on property transfers that Boston then would create a fund to be distributed to municipalities to support affordable housing efforts. Another would create a local option tax — similar to the property tax surcharge created by the Community Preservation Act; this proposal would allow towns and cities to levy a surcharge on real estate transfers with the revenue staying local.
 
Andrew Hogeland, who recently stepped into the AHT Board spot designated for a member of the Select Board, said he heard about the proposals through his work on the Massachusetts Select Board Association, which he serves representing boards in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire Counties.
 
"I expressed a preference for a local option," Hogeland said. "I have a little bias against money going to a state agency. They have overhead."
 
Both Sheldon and Parese encouraged Hogeland to represent the board's interest in supporting some mechanism for generating revenue and concurred with his preference for a local tax that residents can choose to levy, as they did with the CPA tax.
 
Hogeland also asked his colleagues to think about how the board — and the town as a whole — should commemorate the coming 10th anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene, which devastated the Spruces Mobile Home Park and ultimately led to the loss of 225 moderately priced homes.
 
"It could be a walk, it could be a service, it could be a sign commemorating things," Hogeland said.
 
"It should be simple," Costley said. "It is a somber event."
 
Hogeland noted that the storm did galvanize efforts in town to address an already acute need for affordable housing, leading to, among other things, the creation of the Affordable Trust itself.
 
Parese said the 10-year milestone is an opportunity to keep the issue in the public eye.
 
"For the progress we've made, we're still way behind where we were," he said. "It's not a bad idea to remind people we're not overwhelmed with available affordable housing."

Tags: affordable housing trust,   mortgage,   

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Berkshire DA: Up to Towns to Handle Officers on 'Brady List'

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — If Select Board members hoped the Berkshire County district attorney would offer direction on how the town should deal with the impact of having a police officer on her office's "Brady list," they were very disappointed.
 
Twice during an hourlong presentation at Monday's Select Board meeting, District Attorney Andrea Harrington said it was not her office's place to tell towns how to respond when the county's prosecutor decides one of the municipality's law enforcement officers has a history that needs to be revealed to defense attorneys or, worse, that an officer's history is so concerning that he or she cannot be used as a prosecution witness without approval of a supervisor.
 
The town currently has 11 full-time officers — including one on administrative leave since March and another pulling double duty as lieutenant and interim chief. A third has been placed on Harrington's "do not call" list, meaning the DA has determined the officer has "made misrepresentations about material facts in a criminal investigation," she said Monday in Williamstown Elementary School's gymnasium.
 
Some in the community have wondered whether having an officer on the do-not-call list, particularly when the department already is short-handed, creates an issue for the department's efficiency. Many residents have suggested that the town should remove the officer on the list and replace him with an officer who can be fully functional.
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