To the editor:
Having witnessed, at the last Community Preservation Committee’s meeting of Jan. 6, the often angry reaction by neighbors to the proposed purchase by the Great Barrington Affordable Housing Trust of 7.25 acres of vacant land off of North Plain Road in Housatonic, I would like to try to address some of the concerns expressed as well as some of the misconceptions.
The trust was created by town meeting specifically to try to address the issue of the lack of affordable housing for members of our community. As of the 2010 census, 48 percent of homeowners with mortgages and 61 percent of renter households in Great Barrington are “cost burdened” — spending more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing. These numbers, which are actually higher in Housatonic, have doubled from 2000. With the increase in real estate prices since 2010, it is likely that this year’s census data will be significantly worse. The town’s master plan of 2013 recognized this housing challenge and created guidelines to help address it.
The property in question meets virtually all of these guidelines. It is infill, not farmland. It is flat, 100 percent developable with no conservation issues such as streams, wetlands or vernal pools. It is primarily sand and gravel. The entire site was cleared of all trees by the current owners in about 2008, and all vegetation on the site is relatively young. Homes can be oriented for rooftop solar arrays as well as passive solar architectural design. All site access will be from North Plain Road, creating no traffic impact for the surrounding neighborhood. It is less than one-half mile from the center of Housatonic — typically a 10-minute walk — and the town is slated this spring to install new sidewalk on Main Street all the way to North Plain Road. A slight route adjustment could provide bus access to both this site and the surrounding neighborhood. It is convenient to recreational trails and the Williams River. It is served by Housatonic Water Works and only about 900 feet from town sewer. Bringing sewer into the site could be grant-funded. It would not affect the surrounding streets and no one with a functioning septic system would be forced to hook up, as was mistakenly claimed.
The Trust has a binding purchase and sale agreement that is contingent upon approval of the funding for the purchase by the May annual town meeting. The deposits that have been made are from the trust’s undesignated CPA funds. No funds are at risk as the deposits are fully refundable should town meeting fail to approve the funding. While I am a licensed real estate broker and am acting as the agent for the trust, the purchase and sale agreement clearly states that neither I, nor my firm, Berkshire Property Agents, will receive any commission from the sale. To do so would be a conflict of interest, a clear violation of state law.
The property has been on the market, available to the public, since 2013 and has been priced at under $200,000 since May of 2016. The asking price was reduced to $189,000 in April of last year, which brought it back to my attention. Contrary to assertions made, there was nothing nefarious about this process; anyone could have made an offer at any time to purchase it.
The neighborhood is zoned R-1A, which requires 10,000 square feet of lot area and 100 feet of road frontage. A conservative estimate suggests that 22 lots could be created on the parcel, which would allow, by right, a two-family as well as an accessory dwelling unit on each lot for a total of 66 dwelling units of market-rate housing for a private developer. This would require approved subdivision road(s) from the planning board in a public hearing process where abutters would be notified. As long as the roads and lots conform to the town’s subdivision guidelines, however, it is not really discretionary — the planning board would have to approve it. In this scenario, it is highly likely that many abutters would be looking at new garage structures in private yards as close as 10 feet from their property lines.
A second development scenario, often employed by private developers, would be a 40B Comprehensive Permit where only 20 percent to 25 percent of the units are required to be available to residents who earn up to 80 percent of area median income. This is a public permitting process through the zoning board of appeals where abutters would be notified of public hearings, but it effectively allows the developer to disregard the normal zoning restrictions such as density, height and setbacks.
The Affordable Housing Trust has been working with four potential partners, all of whom are focused on creating affordable housing for our community: Construct, Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire, Berkshire Housing Development Corporation and Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity. While the development team has not been finalized — it will be subject to a public request for proposals — it is anticipated that it will comprise not-for-profit organizations. Without a development team in place, it is impossible to determine exactly how the project will be developed, but the intention of the Trust is to create a diverse and vibrant community by clustering homes on the site — a special permit process — in a way that creates open space and provides a buffer around the perimeter of the site respecting the privacy of the neighbors.
Our discussions to date have focused on this rare opportunity to create a mix of rental units with freestanding single-family home ownership units, all of which shall be made available to residents making up to 100 percent of AMI. The trust’s charge is to create affordable — also known as workforce — housing. All trustees are volunteer town residents who are certainly sensitive to trying to minimize any disturbance to the existing neighborhood.
Concern has been expressed that neighborhood home values will decline as a result of this project. While no one can accurately predict the future, there is little to substantiate this fear given escalating housing costs and the soaring cost to build new housing. Whether or not this parcel is developed, a more likely scenario is that local buyers will be priced out of the existing neighborhood as prices rise everywhere. The trust’s mission is to ensure that, as prices rise, members of our community are still able to find a decent home at a price they can afford.
The property has 21 direct abutters, with an average assessed value of $270,000 and an average home size of 1,600 square feet. This was, no doubt, workforce housing when it was built in the 1960s, as was expressed by many of the neighbors. That average value is approximately 80 percent of the median sale price for homes sold in Great Barrington in the last year. It is still considered relatively affordable compared to much of the town. But is it really affordable?
Buyers for that property would need a down payment of $54,000 for a “conforming” home loan. Even with our current low interest rates, a more likely scenario for first-time homebuyers, with a decent credit score, is to fund some of a $27,000 down payment through an interest-free assistance loan from the town’s Affordable Housing Trust. A 90 percent mortgage is typically offered at a higher interest rate than “conforming” loans and often requires private mortgage Insurance. A ballpark estimate of what these buyers need to earn annually in order not to be “housing cost burdened” is $88,000. How many free-of-student-debt young families, teachers, nurses, police, firefighters and other members of our community can meet that standard? That is why the Affordable Housing Trust was created and why we need this kind of project.
The Affordable Housing Trust very much looks forward to meeting with the neighbors over the coming months to further clarify our goals and process and, hopefully, to assuage some of the fears that have been expressed to date.
The writer is a trustee of the Great Barrington Affordable Housing Trust.