Why can’t we build affordable apartments?

  • Winslow Apartments in downtown Greenfield was the last affordable housing project built in Greenfield, in 2012. PAUL FRANZ/FILE PHOTO

  • Two people walk down Forbes Court on a brisk afternoon at Greenfield Gardens, Wednesday, in Greenfield, Nov. 16, 2018. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Leyden Woods, one of the affordable housing projects in Greenfield, which would be difficult to build today. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Elm Terrace on Friday in Greenfield, Nov. 23, 2018. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Greenfield, where much of the county’s affordable apartments are located, as seen from Poet's Seat Tower. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Greenfield Housing Authority Executive Director Dan Finn, at a summit discussing homelessness at Greenfield Community College in Greenfield, Nov. 16. Staff Photo/Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 12/3/2018 11:26:17 PM
Second in a series

 

GREENFIELD — Five years ago a report warned the county: Make affordable housing a priority or else see your communities suffer.

In the five years since that Franklin Regional Council of Governments report, and a similar white paper by Massachusetts Housing Partnership, the writing on the wall has only gotten darker: without investing in more affordable housing, a host of economic and social perils will ensue.

Very few of the remedies suggested by the studies have been accomplished since then to remove obstacles that housing developers face if they want to invest in the region.

Some of the suggestions that didn’t fully materialize include:

■A Franklin County Affordable Housing Task Force was supposed to be formed, in part with government funding, and take the leading, analyzing potential sites for affordable housing, collaborating with existing regional housing advocates and bringing training sessions and workshops to communities.

■Revisions of zoning laws in towns have happened, but slowly. The Shelburne Planning Board is considering proposed zoning changes to support the building of a senior affordable housing development in that town, which is being promoted by the Franklin Regional Council of Governments.

■A regional program to assist towns and owners with meeting the requirements of state statutes urging all communities to provide a certain amount of affordable and senior housing.

■ Programs that support small-scale subsidized projects under 20 apartments to be built has gotten off the ground, but the funding has been extremely competitive, and local experts say it’s not a feasible solution across Franklin County and in Greenfield.

■The Massachusetts Housing Partnership acknowledged the lack of water and sewer infrastructure in rural towns, and said the state should save more MassWorks money to invest in it, but local builders say this remains a challenge that’s too expensive to overcome in Franklin County.

■A state Rural Policy Advisory Commission. The advisory commission has been created and is helping to promote the views and unique needs of rural communities to a state government dominated by urban interests. The commission will be coming to Greenfield, Dec. 13, from 5 to 7 p.m., for a listening session held at the Main Street downtown center of Greenfield Community College.

Government subsidies

Most low-income housing has been built with the help of state or federal tax dollars and therefore rented at below market rates, or the apartments are built by developers who shoulder the full cost but whose tenants use government rent vouchers – thus ensuring a profitable revenue stream.

But local officials say it has become almost impossible in rural Franklin County to build new subsidized housing.

There are just under 1,000 apartments in Greenfield that are specifically for subsidized housing. This includes roughly 300 apartments held by the Greenfield Housing Authority, 220 apartments in Leyden Woods, 200 apartments in Greenfield Gardens, 100 in the Weldon, 50 in the Greenfield Acres “High Rise.”

There has not been a new affordable housing project built in Greenfield since 2012, when the Greenfield Housing Authority’s non-profit arm rehabilitated the former Harco Rooms at Main and Wells streets into 55 single-occupancy rooms. At the same time the population in need of subsidized housing has only grown.

The lack of new subsidized apartments has contributed to the increase of homelessness and difficulty people report finding homes they can afford in Greenfield, regional housing experts say.

Warnings from 2014

Consider this warning from then-Executive Director of the Franklin Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority Robin Sherman in 2014: 

“If you consider the high cost of getting to school, work and appointments in our region, the average household spends more than 56 percent of its income on housing plus transportation,” Sherman told the Franklin Regional Planning Board then. “And that doesn’t leave much for everything else for the lowest income families.”

“I just want everybody to understand that it’s a really big problem,” she continued. 

4,000 more homes

At the time, there was a call for 4,000 additional homes in Franklin County to provide affordable living conditions for its residents, otherwise, Sherman cautioned, it would set off ripple effects on the lowest income families and seniors, and to the broader population.

The study also says more affordable housing “is vital” for the region to attract and retain younger residents.

The study warns that if additional affordable housing isn’t built across the county’s 26 towns, it will continue the consolidation of low-income households in the county’s urban core and “may become segregated.” It can also “reduce the crises faced by families and improve child development if people can afford the basic necessities of life,” the study reads. “Our communities will be strengthened, not harmed.”

Not everyone in 2014 was convinced anything would change. 

Cheryl Dukes, a Buckland Selectboard member, said  “The policy isn’t going to change, because we do not have critical mass out here. Policy is developed in Boston, where they have one-size-fits-all, because that’s their environment, and that’s what they know.” She said it was also a part of a “larger, broader issue” of a shrinking middle class and dwindling support for federal programs to address the causes of poverty. 

“The homeless population is increasing,” the 2014 FRCOG study states. “The need for additional housing affordable to households at the Extremely Low Income level is critical.”

The extremely low income level is classified as household income of less than $15,000 a year, with low and very low income in the $15,000 to $40,000 range, together. Nearly all of the housing subsidy programs are oriented toward those low income and below, the study explains, but despite these efforts, it’s “still not sufficient for the demand, and more needs to be done to provide affordable housing for households with these incomes.” 

About 37 percent of households in Greenfield make $35,000 or less. (It’s difficult to know how many households make below $40,000 since Census data groups together household income of $35,000 to $50,000.) In Massachusetts, 27 percent of households make $35,000 or less and across the country 32 percent do. 

Burden falls to Greenfield

It’s not so simple for smaller towns in Franklin County to take some of the burden off Greenfield and Montague in the affordable housing market. 

Cost of land can be a deterrent for developers, along with limited locations supported by public sewer and water systems, the study says. Public utilities lower a developer’s construction costs.

State guidelines say towns should have at least 10 percent of its housing be “affordable,” but only five of the 26 Franklin County towns meet this standard, including the “city centers” of Greenfield, Montague and Orange. Affordable, specifically in this instance, refers to housing that can be purchased or rented by a household making up to 80 percent of the median income of the area.

Even if the surrounding towns had more low-income housing, many people without cars might choose to stay in Greenfield where the county’s social services are based, interviews suggest.

For this reason, for example, one Greenfield resident who used to live in the Winslow Apartments and is currently homeless said not only would she not want to live anywhere else in the county other than Greenfield, but also would want to live downtown.

Leyden Woods, a subsidized housing project 2.5 miles from Main Street, is too far for her for a number of reasons. She has multiple disabilities that make walking the distance a challenge, particularly when there are no sidewalks all the way from Leyden Woods to Main Street. FRTA buses are only an option on weekdays during the couple times of day it comes by.  Franklin Regional Transportation Authority does not operate on weekends. This limits when she can do grocery shopping and make appointments. 

“This makes looking for housing, jobs and accessing services very difficult, if not impossible,” the FRCOG study says.  

Efforts in the recent years by local residents to beef up transportation routes and frequency have been mostly unsuccessful, as the FRTA had to fight merely to maintain its current budget and services.

Union wages cost

One of the main points made in the two major regional studies on affordable housing in 2014 were the challenges of getting private developers to want to build inexpensive apartments in a rural area. 

Building new properties comes down to government funding, economies of scale and construction costs, according to Dan Finn, Greenfield Housing Authority executive director and a Greenfield native.

Massachusetts law requires public entities to bid jobs based on “prevailing (union scale) wages, which inflates construction costs to the point that a private developer might not be interested in building new units,” explained Finn.

This is one of the biggest obstacles to building more affordable housing in the city and in rural areas generally, Finn says. Factors like economies of scale, costs and competition for developments skew in favor of the eastern part of the state, because there’s more money to be made there, according to Finn. Why build a half dozen apartments in Franklin County and barely break even, if at all, when you can build a few dozen in metro Boston and get a greater return on your investment?

The Winslow project was possible in part because it was the housing authority’s nonprofit arm doing the work. As a nonprofit, it didn’t have to follow the state’s prevailing wage laws.

This work with the Winslow came under scrutiny from the Foundation for Fair Contracting of Massachusetts, which filed a protest with the the attorney general. In 2010 the Attorney General’s Office concluded, “that while the interconnection of the GHAI (Greenfield Housing Authority Inc.) and the Housing Authority raises concerns, we cannot find that the project is subject to the public construction bidding law.” A 2011 audit of the housing authority by the Attorney General’s Office found no major issues with the dynamics between the nonprofit and the housing authority. 

The recent rehab to apartments at Oak Courts, the public housing development off Elm Street, cost about $189,000 per unit, Finn said, bringing the total cost of the project to $14 million for the 74 apartments. Prevailing wage was used for the rehab, but it would’ve been significantly more expensive if built from scratch. Under prevailing wage rules, he said, the cost to build a new unit is around $250,000 these days, which makes it nearly impossible to build anything without serious amounts of federal or state tax credits, and likely without the lead role of a private non-profit. 

Tax credits

Low-income Housing Tax Credits provide the greatest amount of federal assistance to develop affordable apartments in the country these days, according to a September report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Since 2010, about 50,000 housing units have been built through the tax credit program first formed in 1986.  Investors get special tax breaks for supporting low-income housing, making such projects more attractive financially to develop.

While low-income Housing Tax Credits are seen as the ideal way to build affordable housing today, it can be difficult to develop housing under 20 units using the money. The credits are usually reserved for bigger-scale projects, which makes it challenging to find the proper project to apply for the credits within a place like Greenfield or Franklin County.

A federal government audit found large-scale projects over at least 100 units cost about $85,000 less per unit than small-scale projects, which are defined as less than 37 units. 

Given these economic realities, and with politicians typically not supporting major public housing projects like they did in the 1960s, it’s an uphill battle to find funding to build anything new in places like Greenfield. 

“There’s nothing like Greenfield Gardens happening again,” Finn said, referring to a subsidized housing project built in the early 1970s and refurbished in the late 1990s with $3 million of federal dollars. “It would require a big change in the Legislature in the way they view public housing.”

 

TOMORROW: Can you find shelter?

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264




Greenfield Recorder

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Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
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