Housing Trust Recommends Using COVID Relief Funds To Support Affordable Housing

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Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust, November 4, 2021

The meeting was conducted over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here.

Trustees: John Hornik (Chair), Rob Crowner, Carol Lewis, Allegra Clark, Erica Piedade, and Sid Ferreira. Absent: Will VanHeuvelen

Staff: Nate Malloy (Planner); Dave Ziomek (Assistant Town Manager); Lucya Turowski (assistant)

Chair John Hornik announced that the newly elected Town Council will not include Evan Ross, George Ryan, Alisa Brewer, and Sarah Swartz, all who have been advocates of affordable housing. Ross and Ryan lost their bids for re-election, and Brewer and Swartz didn’t run for reelection. He hopes the new council will also support development of affordable housing in Amherst.

Hornik also said that there was a state legislative hearing on establishing transfer fees recently. If these fees are allowed, towns would be able to designate a certain percentage of the sale price of more expensive homes to go to a fund for affordable housing. He also mentioned that the Department of Housing and Community Development has noted that requests for rental assistance are rising in the state.

Hickory Ridge Purchase
About 230 people attended the informational programs at the golf course in October. The town is hoping to close on the property in the next 45 to 60 days, so the town does not have any concrete plans as yet. The amount of land amenable to development is still undetermined. The Housing Trust has previously suggested affordable senior housing or mixed-age group housing. If there are only about five acres which can be developed, it would be harder to do a mixed-age group project. Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek is working on developing a plan for the site.

American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Funds
The amount ARPA money Amherst will receive is still somewhat uncertain. The legislature recommended $600 million to be distributed to municipalities around the state, but the governor wanted $1 billion. There is also federal money, but that will probably go to the state, not directly to towns.

Members of the Housing Trust looked into four different programs related to housing that could benefit from ARPA funds. The programs must have be related to problems exacerbated by the pandemic, and the funds must be spent by December 31, 2026. The following uses were recommended for the approximately $2 million to be used for housing as suggested by Finance Director Sean Mangano. Amherst is slated to receive about $12 million in total.

  1. Allegra Clark looked into the possibility of creating a permanent shelter for homeless residents. She spoke to the Director of Craig’s Doors Kevin Noonan. Although Craig’s Doors has been using the University Motor Lodge for the past 18 months to provide housing for 28 to 30 residents, the cost of purchasing the 6,451 square foot property is estimated to be $950,000. This would use up most of the $1 million allotted to homelessness in the proposed ARPA spending. Also, the need for shelter is estimated to be about 40 individuals, so all could not be accommodated at the Motor Lodge.

Hornik did not think that the cost of purchasing the property should disqualify it, since it is possible additional funds could be obtained from other sources, and this may be the last chance for a while to purchase a permanent property. The congregate center has moved three times in the past three seasons, from the Baptist Church to the Unitarian Universalist building, and now to the Immanuel Lutheran Church. Craig’s Doors must scramble every year to find a spot for the shelter.

Ziomek said he hoped that Amherst won’t need a permanent congregate shelter and that there would be transitional housing available for all who need it. He didn’t think ARPA funds should be linked to one property, and the town should look toward something that could be converted to transitional, supportive housing in the future. Although transitional housing costs more than congregate shelters, the benefits are more long lasting. Amherst has put hundreds of thousands of dollars into congregate shelters over the year.

The Housing Trust proposed devoting the suggested $1 million to either a permanent shelter or transitional supportive housing or a combination of both.

  1. The Trust also recommended $400,000 in ARPA funds to increase the energy efficiency of rental housing with a maximum of $10,000 per building. A similar program was established in Chelsea. Hornik recommended working with the Energy and Climate Action Committee and with MassSave to leverage additional borrowing. Malloy wanted to make sure this program to specified how it would benefit tenants, not only the landlords. 
  1. Rob Crowner and Erica Piedade presented options for affordable home ownership. Crowner based the proposed program on the Amherst Community Land Trust (ACLT) model in which ACLT owns the land and the resident owns the house, which reduces the cost of the property by about a third. Also, because ACLT is a nonprofit, no property tax is owed on the land. In return, the house must remain affordable to those making less than 80% of area mean income when it is sold. ACLT has had some homes donated to this program, and is hoping to encourage others to donate their homes or part of the selling price to the land trust. 

In addition, ACLT is working with Valley Community Development Corporation to offer a $125,000 subsidy. This program has already allowed another family to purchase a home.

low-income residents can only afford a house up to about $250,000. There are only a few homes in this price range for sale in Amherst every year and the competition for them is fierce. Entrepreneurs and people from cities can outbid families. With a subsidy from ACLT, families can afford a home worth up to $400,000, which is close to the average selling price in Amherst. 

No amount was specified for these programs, but Piedade noted that the $50,000 subsidies offered by Valley CDC in the past was not enough to allow affordable homeownership.

  1. Carol Lewis and Laura Baker of Valley CDC proposed $150,000 of ARPA funds be used to promote construction of affordable homes, perhaps small houses or condominiums. The town could promote this development on land already owned by the town or could purchase land for this purpose. The town would then issue a request for proposals for developers to construct appropriate housing.

Community Preservation Act Proposals
The Housing Trust recommended supporting a proposal to the Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC) by the Amherst Housing Authority to use $80,000 of CPA money to replace the siding on the 50-year-old Nutting apartments on Cottage and East Pleasant Street. The CPA funds would supplement funds from state sources.

In addition, the Housing Trust requested $30,000 to fund a consultant for the next two years and $500,000 for program funds. The Trust also supported the proposal for a part-time Affordable Housing assistant in the Planning Department, and $500,000 for a site for transitional, supportive housing. Malloy said that CPAC has only $1.3 million to award this year, but has received requests for almost three times that much money. CPAC will begin its deliberation on November 10 at 6 p.m. Awards will be approved in the spring.

Survey Of Older Adults
The town is working with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and the Council on Aging to survey senior residents regarding their needs. This is part of Amherst becoming a dementia friendly community. The draft survey includes some items pertaining to housing, so the housing trust would like to use the results to document the need for senior housing in Amherst.

Although the survey is likely to be distributed at the Senior Center and at places where seniors live, Hornik thought it is important to sample those seniors who live in single-family homes who may be interested in other housing opportunities in the future. He thought it would be important to use street lists to mail surveys to residents over age 55 so that this population would not be missed. He also said the town needs to be assured of getting a reasonable sample of people of color. He recommended that the Trust allocate $2000 of its funds to cover the cost of the mailing. 

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