Town, faculty face housing problems

The continuing expansion of the faculty as a result of course load reduction and other hiring necessities has caused a housing crunch for the College. With 20 faculty positions added this year and another 10 anticipated for next year, the College is examining ways to find affordable housing for its new employees.

According to Terry Lamb of Alton & Westall Real Estate, the least expensive house on the market costs $114,000, minus the needed renovations. Lamb explained that the average home in Williamstown ranges from $225,000 to $300,000, but even the inventory for this market is small.

The College hosts a biannual lottery for eligible faculty and staff, at which available housing is distributed. Rankings for the draw are determined by a point system that accounts for faculty position, years of service, and family situation. All faculty members are eligible for the lottery for three years or until they receive tenure.

This year, every faculty member on the lottery list received College-owned housing, but that discounts the many members with low picks that found housing in the private sector and withdrew from the lottery. In January, six to eight units will be open, provided no renovations of the spaces will be needed.

To assist faculty members buying in the private sector, the College offers its own mortgage program. Non-tenured faculty may receive matching funds up to $100,000 at half the market interest rate of the Williamstown Savings Bank, while tenured faculty members can receive the same perk but on a non-matching basis.

Without College-subsidized housing, many professors could not afford to live in Williamstown. This is especially true for new faculty members arriving straight from graduate school, and it is often the new faculty members with the low draw numbers that shop the market.

Such low mortgages, however, while helping faculty, also inflates housing prices in town. “One of the realities is that because the College subsidizes the mortgages for faculty that artificially inflates the market,” Margaret Ware, a Williamstown selectman, said.

In addition, alumni of the College, 267 of whom own a residence in Williamstown, further boost the market when they buy units in the area. Many of the alums made their wealth in more economically vibrant areas and are willing to pay high prices for first or second homes in Williamstown.

The real estate market in Williamstown is also tight as a result of the stabilizing influence of the College’s employment numbers, which rarely fluctuate. Since the College does not shift through many periods of mass hiring or firing, the real estate market is inflated and offers no good time to buy.

By meeting the necessity of quality units, however, the College aggravates its housing shortage problem. With housing so desirable, more professors want to live in the units, which in turn decreases the number of open units for new professors.

The inflated real estate market creates problems for the town as well. In a report published by the town last month, a hired team of economists evaluating the availability and affordability of housing stated: “The combination of rising demand and limited supply/growth have caused existing property values to appreciate, making it more difficult for renters and prospective homeowners in lower and mid-range income levels to find suitable and affordable housing in Williamstown.” The report, while offering specific recommendations for increased housing, stopped short of suggesting how their goals should be meet. The town has considered developing some public lands for private use as well as the possibility of turning small amounts of conservation land, with two-thirds support of town residents, into zoned residential land.

“Our focus is having a heterogeneous population. We want to have people of all income strata so we can have an interesting population,” Peter Fohlin, Williamstown town manager, said.

Recognizing the tight market conditions caused in part by the College, Williams has attempted to avoid drying up the existing housing market.

When possible, the College tries to offset its impact on available housing in the area by building new units instead of acquiring preexisting houses that may be in demand by other town residents. Presently, around ninety-eight housing options that range from studio apartments to single family homes are used for faculty and staff residences.

“We are attempting to address a large portion of our housing needs ourselves,” said Robin Malloy, manager of real estate and housing. Last year, the College purchased the B & L lot at the end of Spring Street. Plans for the building remain tentative, but the three-story structure will have retail space and public restrooms on the first floor with faculty apartments on the second and third.

The College also hopes to close a deal on the purchase of the Southworth School. Last spring, the College submitted the only offer on the building to the town, and the transaction should be completed shortly. A plan to buy another home within Williamstown, which would be split into apartments, is still pending.

The construction of a mixed-use building on the site of the old B & L service station would create eight more two-bedroom apartments, and conversion of the Southworth School, according to preliminary plans, will add a mix of eight single, double and triple bedroom units.

“Once these (the above listed buildings) come on line, this will help dramatically with the housing shortage,” said Colin Adams, professor of mathematics and chair of the Committee on Priorities and Resources.

Along with subsidizing, the College offers professors the option of living in the Pine Cobble, a 300-acre housing development. The College owns the land and maintains the access road, but faculty members build and keep up their own homes.

This reserved land increases the market for faculty members and should help relieve the housing crunch for years to come. However, the expansion rate of the development has increased faster than the College anticipated, with an additional nine lots lost after the discovery of an endangered plant, the hairy honeysuckle, on the properties. Thirty-five lots remain open on the development.

College housing has many perks as it is convenient, affordable and maintained by Buildings and Grounds. Set housing also saves new faculty the time and hassle of finding a home in an unfamiliar area, where their stay may be tentative. Jon Bakija, professor of economics, added that College housing also offers the benefit of having the College sublet the unit while a professor is on leave. “This is important at a place like Williams, because people need to go on leave frequently to stay connected to their careers and to make us better teachers,” Bakija said.

Offering such arrangements is important for the College in order to attract good professors. “Potential faculty hires want to know that they will be able to find appropriate housing in the area,” said Adams. “Being able to attract the best possible faculty is crucial for the College.”