A Path To Home Ownership For Low-income Families

Photo: pixy.org. Creative Commons

Report On A Forum Sponsored By The Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust, Amherst Affordable Housing Coalition, League of Women Voters of Amherst, and the Town of Amherst (March 30, 2021)

This forum was held via Zoom and was open to the public. A recording will be posted eventually on the Amherst Media website.

John Hornik, chair of the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust (AMAHT),said that, even in a good year, only two or three low-income families achieve home ownership in Amherst. Often it is none. The purpose of this forum was to introduce several agencies that help families find homes to buy. The session was moderated by AMAHT member Frances Goyes-Flor.

Amherst Community Land Trust (ACLT)
Linda Slakey, Chair of ACLT,presented the land trust model, which began after the Civil War but is fairly new to Amherst. ACLT is now in its seventh year and has facilitated home ownership for four families. Slakey pointed out that 80 percent of Area Mean Income is $77,000 a year for a family of four. Even the most affordable homes in Amherst are out of reach for families at that income level. In the land trust model, the trust owns the land and the homeowner owns the house. Since the land is typically worth one-third of the total property value, the house becomes more affordable. ACLT has provided opportunities for home ownership by purchasing land and having houses built through Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity, a First Time Homebuyers Program administered by Valley Community Development Corporation with mortgage support funded by Community Preservation Act Funds, and with property donated by community members. 

The homeowners are given a 99-year land lease from ACLT, and when they move, the increase in selling price is capped at the percentage of increase in AMI, so the house remains affordable. The land stays with the trust. 

Donated properties may involve donation of the entire property or a portion of the value of the property which allows the trust to purchase the whole property or use the proceeds for another site.  ACLT has so far received prospective donations for four properties with a total value of more than $1 million. The first of those properties came to the trust with the death of ACLT’s first chair, Maurianne Adams, last October.

Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity
According to Executive Director Megan McDonough, Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity has built 46 homes in Hampshire and Franklin Counties since 1989. Twelve have been in Amherst. The organization is now completing homes in Northampton and Shutesbury, and has plans to build two in Pelham near the Amherst line. There were over 50 applicants for the two Pelham homes, which shows the need for moderately priced homes in the area. The two families for the Pelham homes will be chosen by lottery. Applicants must have a stable income of between $29,000 and $55,000h(60 percent of AMI) to qualify. Chosen families participate in construction along with Habitat volunteers.

Valley Community Development Corporation
Valley CDC manages 80 buildings with 280 affordable units. It also has a homeowners program administered by Donna Cabana. Executive Director Jane Loechler said that Cabana searches for affordable homes for qualified buyers. She works with prospective buyers on budgeting and applying for available aid, and often finds down payment assistance from CPA funds and land trusts. Purchases using CPA funds allow a buyer to earn up to 80 percent of AMI ($77,000 for a family of four), instead of the 60 percent allowed by Habitat. 

Way Finders
Way Finders does not assist in home ownership per se, but by providing affordable rentals, it helps families to save money that they will use in the future for buying a home. Way Finders administers 44 affordable units at Olympia Oaks and 12 units at Butternut Farms on Longmeadow Drive. Over the past year, six tenants have purchased homes in the area, one in Amherst and the others in surrounding communities. Way Finders offers First Time Homeowners seminars and education about budgeting, helping families achieve their financial goals.

Mel Antuna, vice president of property and asset management, noted that most two-bedroom apartments cost between $1,750 and $1,900 per month in Amherst, while the rent for a two-bedroom apartment at Way Finder’s sites in Amherst is less than $1,100.

Four New Homeowners Share Their Stories
Jeremiah Wooley is the recipient of the house donated to ACLT by Maurianne Adams. He has lived in Amherst for 19 years and works for the PVTA. For the last 14 years, he had helped Maurianne with gardening and other household tasks. He never thought he would be able to own a home, but thanks to ACLT and Maurianne, that dream has become a reality. He thinks of himself as a steward of the home, caring for it for future generations. If he moves, the home will revert back to ACLT, and he will get a portion of the increase in property value. 

Brahim Sadhouni and his family live in a Habitat house built on ACLT land. He had applied unsuccessfully to Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity in 2015 but was successful when he applied again in 2017 and moved into the North Amherst home he now occupies with his wife and two children the following year. Since he helped in the construction, he knows the house well. Like Wooley, he is now a board member of ACLT, which allows him to participate in decisions to help future homeowners.

Maxine Anderson has owned her Amherst home for eight years. She has lived in Amherst for 20 years, but as a single mother of two, working at UMass and paying market rate rent, it was impossible to save enough to qualify for a mortgage After extensive counseling from Donna Cabana at Valley CDC about how to budget, how to improve her credit, and which bank(s) to approach for a mortgage, she was able to purchase her current home. She said, “ I am living my dream.”

One participant said she was once homeless, a single mother with three children. Way Finders gave her a case worker and Habitat’s McDonough made it possible for her to purchase a house. She was able to take advantage of a Valley CDC first-time homeowners program to obtain a mortgage. With stable housing, she was able to find work at Jewish Family Services. In addition to working, she is currently a PhD student in the UMASS School of Education.

Public Discussion
Chad Fuller wondered about converting town land and existing town buildings into affordable housing. Goyes-Flor said thatschools, armories, and other unused buildings around the state have been converted into housing. Modern households are smaller than in the past, so more, smaller units are needed. She said that it costs the same to build affordable housing as it does to build market rate, so incentives need to be given to developers to build affordable units. 

Former Amherst Middle School teacher Elissa Rubenstein submitted a comment read by Janet Keller about the need for workforce housing. When Rubinstein began teaching at ARMS in 1972, many of her students were children of town employees, police, and firefighters. By the time she retired in 2002, the demographic had changed significantly. The homes of her former students were now student rentals or had been renovated into more expensive housing..

Julio Alves suggested building tiny homes for single people or small families with low incomes. McDonough said that Habitat built a one-bedroom home in Northampton a few years ago, but even for a small house, the cost of infrastructure was not insignificant. It would be ideal to build a cluster of small homes, but that would require a large enough property and often a change in zoning. Tiny home communities usually involve supportive services as well, according to McDonough.

Round Table Discussion
Loechler said that it takes persistence for prospective buyers to get the information they need to purchase a home. Outreach has been much harder to do during the pandemic. 

Jim Oldham of ACLT said an often overlooked resource is community members willing to donate their home (or part of its value) to the land trust so that it remains permanently affordable. In conversations with long-time Amherst homeowners, Slakey often asks them to reflect on their own circumstances when they purchased their home. Would someone in the same position be able to afford a home today? The conversation often leads to their sense of loyalty to the town and a desire to give another young family the chance they had.

Goyes-Flor noted that the Massachusetts Housing Authority has allocated $60 million for first-time home ownership. But not only do we have to help people purchase homes, we have to help people avoid foreclosure. Antuna said we need to think outside the box, perhaps by working with developers to build houses and make a portion of them affordable. 

Hornik closed the workshop, noting that the Community Resources Committee of the Town Council has proposed a Comprehensive Housing Policy which contains 51 points, ranging from high priority to low priority. Among the low-priority objectives are providing affordable rentals and home ownership. He urged concerned citizens to write to the Town Council at TownCouncil@amherstma.gov

The Affordable Housing Coalition, League of Women Voters, and the Affordable Housing Trust are sponsoring two more forums:

April 20, Forum on Racial Equity in Housing

May 25 (tentative): Climate Change and Sustainability in Affordable Housing in Amherst

The League of Women Voters is also offering two workshops about running for office, on April 8 and 15 from 7 to 8 p.m. Information and registration is available at the LWV website www.lwvamherst.org 

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6 thoughts on “A Path To Home Ownership For Low-income Families

  1. I genuinely appreciate the efforts of this group, I want to note that some of the struggles to building something that meets the affordability level is multifaceted, we have a shortage of skilled labor, material costs are increasing significantly, and so much of our land is protected or designated to academia. New construction currently goes for about $320-350/sq ft, so if you have a tight design, you might be able to construct a three bedroom home that is 1,000 sq ft for $320k to $350k. Most people would not deem that to be affordable so it may be necessary to consider finding grant opportunities that would help suppress some of those costs through programs like MassDevelopment, because it will be near impossible to build something new AND affordable (by affordability standards).

    I still love and appreciate that the dialogue exists and there may be other grants available as Gov. Baker would like to add 135,000 housing units across Massachusetts in the next 5 years. I appreciate our goal of 25-50 per year, but would be interested to know where we would find those acres without serious help.

  2. That’s so interesting — and are the costs of building-new in general much higher than they used to be, too? Haven’t people figured out any new ways to build well, safely, sustainably, and aesthetically pleasing while also building inexpensively and at low cost to the ecosystem?

  3. Yes, Ms. Axelson-Berry, we have developed better building practices.
    But, material costs continue to climb, labor is not available as it once was, all costs continue to go up. Like automobiles, the lower cost models return less profit so the McMansion is built on larger lots. Plenty interested in purchase there.
    What we seek is at the other end of the market. Amherst becomes a dangerous ‘mono-culture” (see the shrink in number of BIPOC residents in upcoming census figures). “Studefucation”
    or a type of gentrification begins where 50% of our neighborhoods are now 50% absentee-landlord student-conversion of private homes into rentals. Amherst needs more than just zoning tools to bring on-line the 200 units of low (not moderate) income housing identified in the two earlier housing studies. The market has shown us how it works, non-market tools are needed to counter just as much as those used to repair the Ozone Layer.
    One twique one place will not realign the affordable housing system. We need a full system press, all working together. See the unintended consequence in the above article when Philly attempted to control Temple’s spread into the surrounding neighborhoods. This is how the AMAHT was formed. Told by the Commonwealth that one could move as fast as those able to place cash on the barrel head while a property was only listed days on the market (sometimes before listing) there is a need for the town to transfer their own surplus land to AMAHT. Many of the state’s local town trusts have the name “Fund” appended to the end as the 6th word in that title. The Municipal Trust needs its coffers full to acquire land for affordable housing (Air B&B fund, a 1% property-transfer fund, & more). The Council must make funding a number one priority as the two work together toward change. Citizen activists need to let their 13 member council know the need. The schools should educate more builders in advanced framing techniques, current building science methods. ADUs clustered on a large site could supply the extremely low income who could build equity to move onto unsupported housing. We have the technology but need the will. Lend your voice, it has direct benefit to your quality of life ~

    Chad Fuller

  4. Great insight Chad.

    I am curious to hear if there is a way to think about the pipeline for the trades needed in terms of ways engaging youth and encouraging them to pursue certain skill sets that will prepare them for a great career in construction/development and help expedite the said housing you are hoping to add. If you think there is a skills gap now… wait five years.

    The idea of pursuing government for support on the land front is fine and all, but I am trying to challenge the idea holistically and identify two points that no one has ever really discussed, 1.) no trade/tech/vocational school in Eastern Hampshire county, 2.) no community college/2 year school in Hampshire county (aside from Stockbridge, but those students rarely stick around).

    Colleagues that I know in the trades who are younger say that they go to continuing education classes and the next youngest person is in their mid 40’s.

    Are we doing enough organically to get the community to participate in a sustainable path of development in and around Amherst? Are we providing the right training? Are we providing the right support?

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