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Williamstown Housing Group Asks For Long-Term Commitment
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
11:08PM / Tuesday, February 07, 2012
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Affordable Housing Committee is asking for a long-term commitment from the Community Preservation Act to expand low-income housing.

The Affordable Housing Committee previously requested $107,000 be allocated for the group to research possible properties but returned on Tuesday asking for an additional $600,000 for future acquisitions and developments. Through discussion with the Community Preservation Act Committee, the groups decided the money would be put in a Municipal Affordable Housing Trust Fund that would be overseen by a new board.

While the request did not start off Tuesday night with a trust fund, Chairman of the Affordable Housing Committee Catherine Yamamoto agreed to work it into the proposal per the CPA Committee's request. The new board would be appointed, have at least one selectman and act in collaboration with the town to distribute the funds.

The committee can and is expected to return to the board in the future, so ultimately, the committee would be making a longer-term commitment to affordable housing.

However, the CPA Committee only has $570,000 to spend and about $30,000 of that would need to be spent on other projects. The committee, however, could spread the funding through multiple years or could start by exhausting the entire fund, which the town has never done before.

According to Yamamoto, the increase was requested because an earlier focus on the town garage site or the former Photech site has shown that those town-owned properties would not be "as shovel ready" as thought. The group has now begun looking at privately owned land. One such site is the Youth Center on Cole Avenue, which led to Youth Center Executive Director and CPA Committee member David Rempell to recuse himself from the discussion. Rempell later said Affordable Housing officials had visited the site.

"We have been looking at private properties," Yamamoto said. "This would enable us to buy one or more of the properties."

The initial $107,000 would still be used for the study but with the commitment, the group would be able to start taking action, Yamamoto said. Action is exactly what CPA Committee member Christopher Winters wants. Winters said the town takes too much time studying and he would be willing to "take a leap of faith" that the money would get a project rolling sooner rather than later. However, committee member Malcolm Smith said that by not having more details about the end result, the group is just writing a "blank check."

"There is action and then there is writing a blank check," Smith said. "This feels like a big blank check to me."

Board members also questioned if these projects would go to actual low-income housing. Yamamoto said the committee would have to abide by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's regulations. The formula used to determine what is qualified for affordable housing is that a person's income must be no more than 80 percent of the town's median income. Williamstown's median income is about $50,000; anyone making more than $40,000 a year would not qualify.

Yet, Yamamoto said the goals of the committee are to reach to even lower-income brackets. The group wants multiple projects that will increase affordable housing of all income brackets by 500 to 600 homes.

Store at Five Corners

In another CPA request, the South Williamstown Community Association has dropped its request for $400,000 to purchase the Store At Five Corners down to $250,000. According to Barbara McLucas of the association, the committee lowered its request in light of the other projects coming before the town. When the association applied, there were only two small projects being considered, McLucas said.

The association also returned with a business plan for operating the building as a general store, which CPA committee members asked for at the last meeting. McLucas said the group would be interested in using the building for anything but chose a general store because of zoning. The store is grandfathered under zoning to be operated as a store and changing the zoning would be unlikely, McLucas said. That grandfather designation is set to expire in January 2013, when it would revert to residential housing, and the group is hoping to retain the building for public use.

The association took a different focus on Tuesday than it had at the previous meeting, when the presentation focused mostly on the continued operation of the business. Now the group is stressing the building's historic nature, saying the business would be to keep up with maintenance and make it accessible to the community.

The plan, which CPA committee member Peter Fohlin called "horrible," calls for a typical general store with convenience items, coffee, newspapers, deli sandwiches — much like it was operated before — and be a non-profit. It would be run by "skeleton" staffing and volunteers and open mostly mornings. Additionally, McLucas said she talked with the Chamber of Commerce about possibly putting in a visitors' area in the store.

Like most businesses, the association expects the store to run in the red for three years until it breaks even. After that, any profit that is made would be returned in a "co-operative" type way with the volunteers that work the store. McLucas estimates that the purchase would cost about $550,000, a few other thousands in start-up operation costs and then repairs to the aging structure.

"There are other grants we will seek and then we will go on a massive capital campaign," McLucas said.

The committee members agreed on the historic quality of the building, but raised concerns about the amount of money, the feasibility of operating it and that the owner has not indicated if he would sell only the store. The store and the adjacent Green River Farm are on the market for $5 million.

The CPA committee asked McLucas to return with something from the building's owner saying he'd be willing to sell just the store, estimated cost of repairs to the building, a report on the prospect of running a successful campaign and more details on what the association members themselves are willing to contribute.

The CPA committee expected to begin voting on the requests Tuesday but delayed all of the requests until the next meeting because of the changes in proposals. The committee has until the end of March to recommend the projects in order to make it onto this year's town meeting warrant.
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