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Affordable housing? ‘Can-do-minimum’

In North Quabbin area, sizing up (and sizing down) the issue

In Orange’s plans to revitalize its downtown and develop the Millers Falls waterfront, a big challenge is what to do with three vacant, hulking mill buildings.

Right now, the town is working with the owner of an empty cereal mill and seeking MassWorks funding to convert the brick mill into affordable apartment living, says Kevin Kennedy, director of community development for the town.

Robin Sherman, executive director of the Franklin Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority, is looking at renovating old housing stock, to provide subsidized housing for those requiring it. “We’re not building public housing anymore,” she said, “so we’re trying to use available resources.”

In Athol, about 26 percent of the population is over age 60, said Jim Meehan of the University of Massachusetts Center for Economic Development. He said their median income is $17,000, which means that, if a spouse dies, the surviving partner has little to live on. He said there are now about 180 vacant houses in Athol — due in part to foreclosures.

And in Wendell, people who moved there 30 to 40 years ago because they wanted the privacy of a home in the woods are wondering what they will do if, in retirement, they can no longer afford their mortgages or taxes. Or whether they can physically remain in spacious farmhouses with stairs, wood heat and long driveways to plow in the winter.

State Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Second Franklin District, brought Undersecretary Aaron Gornstein of the Department of Housing and Community Development to housing complexes in Athol and Orange. Accompanied by at least a dozen other town and housing officials, the group met in Wendell to discuss current and future housing needs. Later, they toured the new, 760-square-foot home of Jonathan and Susan von Ranson — to see once couple’s solution to downsizing, living off the grid and staying in the rural town where they have lived for at least 36 years.

In 1978, the von Ransons lived in a stone house built by Jonathan von Ranson without running water or electricity, and then, in 1997, they moved into a century-old home near the Town Common. For the past five years, they have been planning the smaller, off-the-grid home in which to spend the rest of their lives. Their new L-shaped two-story home is built into the side of an 1850s barn that the von Ransons had refurbished on their land. It has a compost toilet and a wood stove that can both heat up the small dwelling, be used for cooking and for heating water.

Meanwhile, the von Ransons have rented out the larger home, which will help to subsidize their Social Security retirement income.

“We got a well-built home that will carry us through whatever happens,” said von Ranson, 73. “It’s not just for us, but for the future, too. It provides energy savings, long-term livability and simplicity. The kindest gift we could give to ourselves was being lighter human beings on the planet. That was our goal.”

“I call this our ‘can-do-minimum’ instead of a ‘condominium,’” he added.

The discussion ranged from the “macro” buildings of Orange and Athol to the idea of micro homes — which are like tiny efficiency apartments but can be built on single lots. Andrews called for brainstorming to talk about the issues of housing in the next 20 years and for the public and private sectors to work together to create consensus and then act on it. Quoting John F. Kennedy, Andrews said, “the future is not a gift, but an accomplishment.”

“I grew up in Orange,” she said. “Many people are going to be faced with living on Social Security only. We’re going to have to come up with more (housing) models.”

Nancy Spittle, a member of Wendell’s Council on Aging said many residents there are self-employed carpenters, artists, musicians with less-than-average social security benefits in their future. She said 70 percent of the town’s seniors are now in their 60s and may face challenges over the next 20 years “that will make this rural lifestyle even more difficult.”

Wendell Selectboard member Dan Keller said the town is short in affordable housing and has an aging population.

“People do talk about wanting to stay in town — but not necessarily staying in their two-story house,” said Spittle. “We also have some folks that want to live alone in the woods — not necessarily in an apartment or a home-sharing.”

Andrews talked about the micro-house initiative, which took root in Vermont after the massive flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in 2012.

Besides providing smaller homes for older residents, Nancy Graton of Wendell said the town also needs high-speed Internet access, to attract young families to buy the large homes, “so we can sell them and move into smaller spaces.”

Orange planner Kennedy said his town needs to have a housing stock that is agile. “The housing of our parents and grandparents is going to be different from what our children will need,” he said.

Bedford Selectman Mark Sieganthaler, director of Low Income Housing Tax Credit Programs, said his town of 13,000 residents has a municipal affordable housing trust and is talking about “cottage housing” — clusters of small homes for elders.

But Kevin Flynn of the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission added there are many zoning regulations that create hurdles for developing smaller dwellings. For instance, he said, in some towns you can’t divide a large single-family home into a duplex for elderly housing unless there is twice as much frontage as is required for a single home.

He said smaller affordable homes could be housing options for young people as well as for elders.

Sherman said it’s important to have a good match between the housing you are building and what the community wants.

“You need to make sure when you are building, that you do it the right way the first time,” she said. “When you do it on the cheap, you find you are spending more and more later, and inconveniencing residents.”

Andrews suggested that an “angel tax incentive” might encourage more private citizens to invest in new housing models for their communities.

“Taking the local initiative is clearly the most important step,” said Gornstein. “I think you’re heading down the right path.” He said that a rural housing task force will be looking at current programs and making sure they’re relevant to current issues. He said a lot of state money has been spent to renovate old mill buildings in western Massachusetts.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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