Williamstown approves affordable housing on brownfields

The PhoTech Mill site is one of the brownfields under consideration for affordable housing. Photo credit Nathaniel Boley, Photo Editor.
The PhoTech Mill site is one of the brownfields under consideration for affordable housing. Photo credit Nathaniel Boley, Photo Editor.

The Williamstown Board of Selectmen unanimously moved to issue requests for proposals (RFPs) for affordable housing and mixed-use development at two sites that belong to the town. Developing the sites, a former town garage at 59 Water St. and the 4.8 acre former PhoTech Mill at 233 Cole Ave., has been a priority for both the Board of Selectmen and the Williamstown Affordable Housing Committee since last February, when they released a town Housing Needs Assessment. The Board of Selectmen also hired Trish Smith for a two-year contract as the town relocation advisory agent for the 66 individual and family households that have to be relocated from the Spruces Mobile Home Park.

The sites, donated by the College last June (“College donates affordable housing to Williamstown,” Sept. 11), are currently amenable to various types of development. In June 2013, the College gave the town around four acres of land located near the residential area Proprietor’s Field behind the Torrence M. Hunt tennis fields at the end of Southworth Street. The Higher Ground organization, headed and founded by Lehman Council Advisor and Muslim Chaplain Bilal Ansari, partnered with the Berkshire Housing Development Corporation of Pittsfield, the Elderly Housing Corporation of Williamstown and the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development of Boston to propose development for the sites. “[The College] isn’t officially involved in the request for proposal process for the brownfield sites,” Jim Kolesar, vice president for public affairs, said. “The College’s involvement with the current affordable housing project is the donation of the land on which it’s proposed to be built.” The land will not be immediately ready for construction, as both sites have environmental remediation issues that need to be resolved. Developers, however, have high hopes of entering the initial stages of building over the course of the next year, since both the land and funding are secured. “There are no current plans for using the brownfield sites,” Yamamoto said. “The plan that exists is to issue the attached RFPs, which seek developers who will build affordable housing on one or both of the sites.”

Last fall, the Board of Selectmen voted to commit $2.6 million to an affordable housing project on the aforementioned sites (“Williamstown approves $2.6 million for affordable housing,” Nov. 20). The project was slated to build at least 40 housing units on the land and to draw on $6.13 million of funding from a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Hazard Mitigation Grant (“Williamstown Selectmen commit $2.6M to affordable housing project with unanimous vote,” The North Adams Transcript, Nov. 13).

Massachusetts state guidelines suggest that 10 percent of any municipality’s housing stock comply with the commonwealth’s definition of affordable housing. By these standards, Williamstown should have around 300 affordable housing units. Currently, however, the town only has about half of the recommended number of units (“Williamstown launches push to turn brownfields into affordable housing,” The Berkshire Eagle, Jan. 14). Developing the brownfield sites will help address this shortage, which has worsened in recent years due to weather-related trauma. In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene devastated the Spruces Mobile Home Park, leaving 225 residents homeless and forcing 68 residents to leave altogether. “The [Board of Selectmen] is responsible for the relocation of the residents of the Spruces,” Cathy Yamamoto, chairwoman of the Williamstown Affordable Housing Committee, said. As the newly authorized consultant for drafting a plan for this relocation, Smith will visit Williamstown in the coming weeks, spending a minimum of ten hours with each individual or family in order to assess their case and the amount of compensation they qualify for from the FEMA reimbursement grant the town received. The Board of Selectmen’s decision to review proposals for new affordable housing developments represents a significant move forward in reacting to both the displacement and relocation of town residents.

“Affordability and timeliness of the project [are] due to date of demolition of the Spruces Mobile Home Park in two years,” Ansari said. “The town has just hired a relocation specialist to help facilitate this smooth transition.”

The Affordable Housing Committee will begin sending out RFPs to be featured in the commonwealth’s Central Register. The requests will be posted there as well as in the Williamstown town hall for 30 days. The RFPs also include an appendix of feedback garnered from the community in a series of listening sessions that were open to community members. In response to the needs residents indicated, the Affordable Housing Committee is looking for a proposal that will combine a mix of bedroom numbers and size of living quarters, handicap-accessible units and sustainable construction.

“The town wants the potential for affordable housing to be maximized,” Ansari said. “The town is open to both rental and ownership housing opportunities, although rental development has been the option primarily considered for the site. While the town recognizes that there are some development constraints, it aspires to use the site as fully as possible for affordable housing. The town recognizes that financial feasibility may require some market rate rentals and/or some range of affordability, the affordable units in the development shall, at a minimum, serve households at or below 80 percent of Area Median Income (AMI) as determined by HUD. Priority will be given to proposals that maximize the level of affordability for both the number of units and the degree of affordability of those units. The affordable units will be kept affordable for the longest term that is legal and financially feasible. The aggregate amount of affordability will be considered for respondents that submit proposals for both 59 Water Street and 330 Cole Avenue.”

Both the Affordable Housing Committee and the Board of Selectmen expect to have any and all responses submitted to Town Manager Peter Fohlin by March 7. After this stage of soliciting proposals, review of the RFPs would start around March 10. Both the Affordable Housing Committee and Board of Selectmen will then make their recommendations, possibly choosing the projects suitable for the sites by mid-April.