College donates affordable housing to Williamstown

On June 20, the College donated nearly four acres of land, located near the residential area Proprietor’s Field (behind the Torrence M. Hunt tennis courts at the end of Southworth Street) to be developed into affordable housing. While some details remain to be sorted out, the project has been approved in full. Several members of faculty and staff, including Professor of Political Science Cheryl Shanks, Lehman Council Advisor and Muslim Chaplain Bilal Ansari and former Senior Development Officer Catherine Yamamoto are working closely on the project.

Three non-profit organizations – Pittsfield’s Berkshire Housing Development Corporation, Williamstown’s Elderly Housing Corporation and Boston’s Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development – joined Williamstown’s Higher Ground organization to propose a new use for the idle lot. Ansari helped form Higher Ground in 2011 as a response to the devastation of the Spruces Mobile Home Park due to Tropical Storm Irene. Ansari now serves as president of the organization. “Higher Ground was created to help The Spruces as a community … to stay a part of the greater Williamstown community,” Ansari said. “This is why we went and (sought) help from the College.”

As a result of the storm and federal policy, residents of the Spruces have two years left to leave the area. The federal policies left 225 residents homeless and 68 residents forced to leave. Those 68 residents may be able to move onto the land provided in the College’s donation. “That is the hope,” Ansari said. “If it wasn’t for the good graces of Williams, most of these people would just be gone.” The vacated 114 acres of the Spruces will be converted into a public park.

The College decided to donate the land for a few reasons, hoping to do “a lot of good with very little cost,” Shanks, a member of Williamstown’s Affordable Housing Committee, said. “The land isn’t being used for anything. It’s not as if there is a clear opportunity cost.” The land has no historical significance. The four acres are unique in serving the College little connection, yet they are highly suitable for affordable housing.

Most importantly, “it’s not just the transfer of land that matters. It’s the fact that the College as a private entity can simply transfer the land and speed up the whole process of renting affordable housing,” Shanks said. Because both the College and Higher Ground are private entities, the transfer of land need not meet the same time-consuming requirements as when the town is involved. “[As] a town board, we can only do things in an openly-posted, public meeting,” Shanks said of her role on the Affordable Housing Committee. “We can’t deviate from the agenda. We can’t meet outside of an openly-posted, public meeting to deliberate or get anything done, and all transfers of money have to be voted in a town meeting. So even though it’s important, the ability of the town to build public affordable housing because of public accountability, is incredibly slow.”

Two-thirds of the all Williamstown registered voters must be present and vote on all land acquisitions by the town. “One of the gifts really that the College gave the town is not just the land, but the speed … and Higher Ground was able, because they’re not a town body, to take it. It didn’t have to vote to accept it at some meeting and [was immediately able to] begin to send out requests for proposals,” Shanks said.

Officials have not determined exactly how many or what kind of units will be built next to Proprietor’s Field. However, it is likely they will cater to mobile elderly residents “because of the loss of senior housing in the Spruces, which was a 55-and-older park,” said Ansari. It will most likely look similar to the existing townhouses of one or two stories in Proprietor’s Field. Now that the College has donated the land, there are no foreseeable challenges to be met and developers have high hopes of starting this year. Zoning requirements are expected to be met fully. Developers must obtain funding from the federal government, which may be affected by the funds allotted by legislature as well as the number and size of other applications, but even if funding is not available immediately, the grant is expected to be approved in the near future. “There’s no reason to think that on its merits, this wouldn’t get funded,” said Shanks. “The next steps are getting funding and somebody coming up with architectural schematics of what’s going to be built.”

The Affordable Housing Committee is also looking to develop town-owned land in two other locations. However, the old Photech Mill at the junction of Cole Avenue and the Hoosic River and the dirt parking lot on Water Street behind the Meadow Street apartments both have remediation issues to be worked out. Because those sites are also smaller than the College’s donation, their development will probably be denser, possibly as apartment buildings.