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Williamstown residents narrowly reject plan to expand manufactured home zoning

Buildings, sidewalks and trees lie alongside a road through rolling green hills.
Josh Landes
Williamstown, Massachusetts.

A motion to expand zoning for manufactured homes in Williamstown, Massachusetts failed by a handful of votes at town meeting this week.

Town residents gathered at Mount Greylock Regional School Tuesday night to consider a 42-article warrant that included the zoning bylaw amendment.

“We are proposing that manufactured housing be allowed anywhere that a stick-built home can be built in general residences and in rural residences,” said Stephanie Boyd.

Planning board member Boyd, fresh off her win in the race for a three-year term on the select board, presented the article.

“Manufactured homes offer a technological solution to the affordable housing dilemma," she continued. "Building a home in a factory dramatically reduces construction costs. The per square foot cost, not including land, of a manufactured house can be half that of a stick-built home. As a result, many state policymakers have enacted provisions requiring localities to place manufactured housing on a level regulatory playing field with stick-built housing. 20 states allow manufactured housing in all residential zones.”

Boyd framed the move as part of a larger effort to ameliorate Williamstown’s larger housing concerns from the planning board.

“All of the articles will over time, push down the cost of home ownership and your rents," she said. "In 2020, an estimated 27% of households in Williamstown were housing cost burdened. That means that folks spent more than 30% of their income on housing related expenses. Almost 50% of renters are cost burdened, and 19% of homeowners. We need more housing, we need a variety of housing types, we need less expensive housing and energy efficient housing, and we need to make it easier for new housing to be developed.”

The amendment came to town meeting with the unanimous support of both the select board and planning board.

“This is a type of housing that has been stigmatized in the past. The manufactured housing of today is very, very different from the mobile homes of the past. They're manufactured to a much, much higher standard today," said planning board member Roger Lawrence. “I support this measure because for the first time, we're really putting our money where our mouth is. This is a measure that genuinely reduces the cost of housing per square foot, and it does it in a way that is not specifically geared towards development or business interests. It makes it easier for a homeowner to afford their home. So please vote for this. This is something we can really do that will actually materially help our workforce, our wage earners, our elderly folks living on fixed incomes.”

Dissenters rose to speak out against the measure.

“The proposed zoning reclassification of manufactured mobile homes as a single-family residence does not change the reality that manufactured mobile homes depreciate in value. They do not build equity for their owners, and they end up demolished like automobiles," said realtor Paul Harsch, who opposed the plan during his unsuccessful bid for select board this year and spoke out against it at town meeting. “This house at 81 Stratton Road here in Williamstown was offered for sale for $119,000. After 24 months on the market, the property sold for $94,000. The buyer then placed the property back on the market in 2005 for $129,000. It then took 14 years to sell at just $53,000, the value of the land alone. The manufactured mobile home and garage on that site, a quarter acre site on Stratton Road, were demolished. However, during the same time period, the median selling price of a single-family home here in Williamstown increased by 27%.”

Boyd said that Harsch was continuing to stigmatize manufactured homes, and said federal data contradicted his claims.

“The Federal Housing Financing agency analyzed home prices between 1995 and 2018 and found that the average annual growth rate was 3.8% for traditional homes and 3.4% for manufactured homes. And in fact, the very same factors that influence whether a manufactured home appreciates in value are the same as for stick-built homes, and include things like, do you own the land versus leasing it, the distance to schools, the distance to other services, whether you invested in home maintenance, lot size, so there's very little difference in the actual appreciation. I know in all kinds of houses, we can find one or two situations where it's an anomaly, but that's really not something to worry about.”

When it came time to vote, the planning board’s proposal fell just four votes shy of the two-thirds majority it needed to pass with 216 ‘yes’ votes and 114 ‘no’ votes.

Residents approved a $24 million budget for fiscal year 2024 and the use of electronic clickers to cast votes at town meeting. A motion that would require all dogs to be leashed in public areas was tabled. A recording of the full meeting is below:

Williamstown, Massachusetts Town Meeting 5/16/23
Williamstown, Massachusetts Town Meeting 5/16/23

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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