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Report Adds More Information to Williamstown's Housing Dilemma

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A recently released report provides a deeper look into the housing needs of one small Berkshire County community.

Williamstown’s Affordable Housing Committee recently commissioned a study on the housing needs of the community by housing and development consultant, John Ryan. 

The study confirmed what many in Williamstown already knew: there is a need for affordable housing for the elderly and the poor. In August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene destroyed much of the Spruces Mobile Home Park in Williamstown, leaving many people homeless, primarily seniors, and eliminating much of the town’s housing stock for lower-income residents.

But Catherine Yamamoto, chair of the Affordable Housing Committee, said that the less obvious details revealed in the report were a surprise.

"What wasn't so obvious and in detail to us was the number of elderly people in Williamstown who are spending more than 35 percent of their income on housing," said Yamamoto.

The report finds that nearly 300 senior households are burdened by housing costs, double the rate from 2000.

The report also determined that 35 percent of non-elderly families are also burdened by housing costs, and that since the year 2000, the number of households with children has dropped 50 percent.

Catherine Yamamoto said, "to the extent that he described that decline in the number of families with children, that was a surprise."

Recently, Williamstown was awarded a FEMA grant to help the town purchase the Spruces park from its owners and relocate the 67 remaining residents. But the town hasn’t accepted the grant yet, and is still searching for a suitable spot to build any new housing developments.

The Affordable Housing Committee’s consideration of a 35-acre town-owned property, known as the Lowry property, drew opposition from many quarters. The Lowry property is currently under conservation restriction. A special town meeting was called by way of petition. On the warrant were measures to place the Lowry property into permanent conservation, along with another site. Another measure would open 10 acres of the parcel for the development of housing. However, voters decided to take no action on any of the articles.

Bob Scerbo is a town resident who took up the task of gathering the petition signatures to block development on the Lowry property.

"Although people often say there's a lot of open space in Williamstown...you have to get down into the weeds, and it's not just open space, it's productive open space. It's productive agriculture land," said Scerbo.

Scerbo added that it’s not a land issue, or people issue. He discussed the quagmire of regulation and legal costs the town could be restricted by when developing on conservation land, following state laws for relocating residents, and also complying with the parameters set forth by the FEMA grant.

Scerbo also argued that many of the sites being considered would just not offer the needed or desirable space for those who lost their homes in the Spruces.

"Someone who chooses to own and live in a mobile home is not somebody who may choose to live in more a multi-family dwelling," said Scerbo. "They want to have ownership."

The report analyzed the housing capacity and ranked the feasibility of different kinds of housing in the sites considered for development, including replacement cottages for Spruces residents, affordable rentals for the elderly, affordable homeownership, and moderately priced senior ownership.

The report says that the most desired option — to build another mobile home park in town — does not appear to be on the table at this time.  A group known as Save Our Spruces is also pushing for a way for those remaining in the park to stay in their homes.

Stan Parese, head of the towns’ Affordable Housing Trust, said that if the different groups in town do not come up with a plan, they could risk losing the residents.

"The longer it takes you to get something done, and the degree of which the replacement housing differs from the housing they had - both those things will lead to having the people choose to go elsewhere," said Parese.

Meanwhile, the debate process will continue. At an upcoming Williamstown Democratic town committee meeting, members of the town’s planning board and Conservation Commission will present information they hope will help the town find its next step forward.

For more information: http://williamstown.ws/?page_id=1896

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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