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Amherst to consider creating trust fund for affordable housing

The creation of the trust is on the warrant as town officials continue to wrestle with the loss of affordable units, particularly in apartment complexes off Belchertown Road.

“Everyone knows the need is increasing enormously, especially with the reduction of Echo Village and Rolling Green (apartments),” said Nancy Gregg, co-chairwoman of the Housing and Sheltering Committee.

Gregg said RKG Associates Inc., of Dover, N.H., which completed a housing production study, suggested the creation of a trust as an important way to increase affordable housing in town. “They recommended it be one of the main things we go for,” Gregg said.

To get residents more familiar with the concept, the committee will hold a community question-and-answer forum April 9 at 7 p.m. in the fifth-floor community room at Ann Whalen Apartments.

The trust would be overseen by a board of trustees appointed by the Select Board, with representation from the Select Board, Housing and Sheltering Committee and community members with expertise in real estate, finance and social services. Town Manager John Musante would serve as an ex officio member.

Funding sources for the trust would include the Community Preservation Act, private donations and possibly payments by developers who would otherwise be required to build affordable units alongside market-rate homes.

Gregg said money could be used for pre-development and design costs and feasibility and engineering studies for affordable housing projects. It could also be used for applications for grants and direct purchases of properties.

This will be the second attempt at adopting the trust under the state’s municipal affordable housing trust fund, which was signed into law in 2005.

In fall 2008, Town Meeting members voted to refer the concept back to the Housing Partnership/Fair Housing Committee for additional study, expressing concerns about how the trust would spend money.

But Gregg said she feels the circumstances are different now, as the town is in jeopardy of falling below the 10 percent threshold of subsidized housing inventory mandated by the state’s chapter 40B law. That is the result of the loss of 204 units at Rolling Green Apartments no longer categorized as low income, and the loss of Echo Village as low-income housing with its sale last year. Falling below the state’s threshold could allow developers to skirt aspects of the town’s zoning if they provide some affordable units.

There is also more support from town staff this time around, including Musante, and coordination with departments. Gregg points to the zoning amendment that Planning Board will bring to Town Meeting, known as inclusionary zoning. Under this article, developers of housing projects would be obligated to either construct affordable housing as part of developments or place money into an account that would be used for affordable housing purposes.

Additional affordable housing-related articles are also expected at Town Meeting, including using CPA spending for the purchase of units at Echo Village and Rolling Green and a petition article requesting the town take Echo Village by eminent domain and convert it back to affordable housing.

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