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Habitat drops out of affordable housing project in Leverett

“Given all the information that we had, it just wasn’t financially feasible to go forward with the project,” said Elizabeth Bridgewater, the organization’s executive director.

The project, initiated by Habitat for Humanity two years ago, was to build two housing units on a two- to three-acre tract on Cave Hill Road. The trust was about to ask the town’s Community Preservation Commission for $150,000 to help finance the project when Habitat backed out in late March.

In an email to trust member Chuck Dauchy, Habitat provided a number of reasons for the decision, which included the town’s rural location, which would result in higher transportation costs for homeowners, and the project’s overall costs. “We would have had to have sold the houses at a price that would not have been affordable to a buyer that is in our target family income area,” Bridgewater said.

After a long process to find a suitable piece of land, it had been agreed that Habitat for Humanity would handle purchasing the site, and that it would submit the application to the Community Preservation Commission with the support of the trust. In the end, Habitat said it was reluctant to proceed with that arrangement. Bridgewater pointed out that Habitat does not usually buy the land for its projects.

Select Board member Julie Shively, who is also a member of the trust, said the trust spent over a year testing the lot and trying to reach an agreement with the owner to purchase the property.

Shively, who expressed her disappointment with Habitat’s decision, said that she believes that living in a rural area is a good option for low-income families, since it allows them to participate in activities such as growing their own food and keeping chickens. She also pointed out that Leverett does not have town water and sewer, which would eliminate those expenses from the families’ budgets.

But Bridgewater said that constructing units in a rural area is much more expensive than elsewhere.

“We haven’t really found a model yet where that could work,” she said. “It’s just a little more difficult when there’s no infrastructure on the property or water or sewer, so it just adds additional site costs.” She said that the cost of each of the Leverett units could have been upwards of $200,000, while other Habitat projects usually cost $110,000 to $125,000 to build. Those, she said, generally sell for around $140,000 after closing fees and administrative costs are included.

“When you compare what that would cost for a family earning between 30 and 50 percent area median income – and most of our families fall in the 40 percent category – it just didn’t work,” Bridgewater said. “It was a difficult decision, because I know the people of Leverett put a lot of time and energy into looking for a piece of land they thought might work, and I think that it was disappointing for all of us that it didn’t work out.”

Shively said that Leverett has its own strategic housing plan which helps low-income families purchase existing houses in town. Constructing new homes, however, would be too expensive for the town.

“For the town to pay for that is a little out of reach, so that’s why the Habitat thing was so great,” she said.

She said a rural community offers many benefits that counter the transportation costs, including clean water and clean air. “And, there’s tons of ways to amuse yourself in a rural area without spending money. Habitat for Humanity does good work, but we just think this is a little misguided.”

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