Low-cost housing faces challenges

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Davis Collison ’21 created a documentary about the Spruces Mobile Home park and its destruction in Hurricane Irene.

While community members in many Berkshire County towns, including North Adams, are contending with gentrification, Williamstown residents have been discussing affordable and low-income housing from the vantage point of an already-affluent college town. Such housing is rare and has decreased in recent years due to economic changes, flooding, town pushback and bureaucratic roadblocks.

In 2011, Hurricane Irene destroyed the Spruces Mobile Home park, one of the largest forms of low-cost housing in Williamstown. After the hurricane, the site was declared a floodplain, and all residents had to permanently relocate. Now the site is a park; the two white lion statues along Route 2 are the last reminder of the mobile home community.

In Davis Collison ’21’s documentary about the Spruces, Debbie Turnbull, administrative assistant in the town manager’s office, talked about the process of relocating the mobile home park’s residents. “There was a lot of despair when it first happened,” she said. “I don’t think the community at large has an appreciation for what a loss that was for those individuals… Of the 70 families I think there were only 11 of them that stayed in Williamstown, because Williamstown does not necessarily have a lot of affordable options.”

Professor of Political Science Cheryl Shanks has worked in Williamstown to create more affordable living options through an affordable housing committee, which she said has had little success. Shanks, who has lived in Williamstown since 1994, described a gradual decline in affordable and low-income options. “It’s been a slow process,” she said. “And what Hurricane Irene did was focus people’s attention.”

The challenges to the committee have come from strict town zoning regulations and limited options for possible locations to build less expensive housing. Shanks explained that the committee received pushback from community members who were concerned about sprawl if land was developed on the outskirts of town. On the other hand, Shanks said residents protested development in the middle of town as well, worrying about decreasing parking and green space. 

Recently, there has been one successful development through a collaboration between the College and a non-profit religious organization to expand senior living. A separate plan to increase low-cost housing, however, has struggled to get state funding. 

Shanks said that she believes increasing affordable and low-income housing strengthens communities, especially in a town like Williamstown. “I think it counteracts the hierarchy of Williams,” she said. “That only happens if you live in town.”

After making little progress due to pushback from town members and bureaucratic stagnation, many members of the affordable housing committee resigned. The committee, which has been renamed the housing committee, now works more broadly on housing issues in the community.