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Is there a road mapto affordable housing?

  • Signs have been placed on the Greenfield Common on Wednesday giving notice that it will be closed to everyone from Aug. 24 until Oct. 1. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Staff Photo/Joshua Solomon

  • Tents on the Greenfield Common Thursday in Greenfield. August 9, 2018

  • Greenfield as seen from Poet's Seat on Wednesday morning, Nov. 21, 2018. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Greenfield as seen from Poet's Seat on Wednesday morning, Nov. 21, 2018. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Apartment buildings at Greenfield Gardens on Forbes Court in Greenfield, Nov. 21, 2018. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • MJ Adams, Greenfield's community development coordinator, stands for a portrait outside of City Hall at Court Square in Greenfield, Nov. 29, 2018. Staff Photo/Dan Little



Friday, December 07, 2018
Last in a series

GREENFIELD — As the mayor walked up to activists protesting shutdown of the homeless encampment on the Greenfield Common this summer, a debate over how to best solve the homeless problem in the city was about to ignite.

“What have you done?” Mayor William Martin asked once he got in front of the handful of people, most of whom work in social services. “Writing and protesting” doesn’t get people housing, he continued.

“Who’s working on permanent housing and solutions?” he asked. “The solution is housing … It’s expanding the shelter … Nobody in this group is doing that.”

“We’re trying to keep this in the public eye,” replied Philippe Simon, a GCTV employee and local human rights activist.

So, now that the tent city is gone, but the issue of homelessness and affordable housing is on the public’s mind – and the City Council’s plate – what are possible solutions to the problem?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a potential liberal presidential candidate for 2020, released in September an extensive plan on how to fix the affordable housing crisis nationally through legislation and federal funding.

The proposed bill, called the “American Housing and Economic Mobility Act,” would also likely cost $450 billion over 10 years. The financing could come from estate taxes.

Her plan includes lowering the costs of building apartments so that landlords don’t need to charge as much to recoup development costs. The bill would deliver government money to subsidize the building of affordable housing, especially in rural, low-income regions. This could lead to 380,000 affordable rental homes, Warren estimates. The bill would also try to change zoning laws that impede the growth of the housing, especially for people who are typically marginalized.

Many Republicans in Congress may see this sort of plan as “throwing money at a problem,” and its prospects of passage are unclear at best.

Closer to home and reality, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a $1.8 billion state affordable housing bill in May, intended to increase building of affordable housing, to modernize existing public housing and to preserve whatever is affordable currently.

The law will also help to extend the state’s Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and the Housing Development Incentive Program, both of which local experts have said are important to encourage developers to build in a rural area like Franklin County. If the bill had not been signed, the current funding for these programs could have been cut in half in the coming years.

In addition, Baker’s administration rolled out the Housing Choice Initiative in December, intended to build 135,000 new housing units by 2025 in Massachusetts through other state incentives.

State Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, explained “affordability is a two-way street. It’s not only affordability of the housing, it’s the ability to afford. What do people have to spend on housing, especially in a rural area?”

Mark seeks to provide money that helps keep people in their apartments and avoid an eviction, things like fuel assistance and money to help pay for first and last month’s rent and security deposits, for renters.

To help smaller-scale projects in rural areas, Mark said, requires making sure they are “shovel-ready,” or once the money is awarded, building could begin at the site without any remediation or related work.

He advocated for a raise in the minimum wage to give low-income residents more money for rent.

Baker’s bill on housing, while seen as a success especially since it allocates $1 billion of it directly to building new housing, left Mark frustrated because it can’t target specific projects. The governor’s administration decided to keep any earmarks out of it, meaning legislators, like Mark, couldn’t guarantee a certain amount of money goes directly to specific projects. Instead, it’s at the administration’s discretion, which generally has been good, Mark said, “but they don’t have the same street-level view of what my colleagues and I have here.”

Mark said he has been in discussions with the city of Greenfield and the Greenfield Housing Authority to pursue alternate, possibly more sustainable, funding from the state to build and develop housing in the area. Typically, cities use federal Community Development grants channeled through the state as the only antidote to whatever the most current housing issues are at a moment.

Recently elected state Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, said she wants to: support and grow rental assistance programs like the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP), Alternative Housing Voucher Program (AHVP), and Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT).

She would also make the vouchers more feasible to use for people by increasing its fair market rent valuation. State vouchers are currently using rent levels from over a decade ago, making it difficult to use vouchers because rents have risen.

She would reform zoning laws to promote creation of affordable housing in all communities; and she would invest in more public transportation.

Several regional housing experts also said that a change in requirements that public housing projects pay union scale “prevailing wage” might make building affordable apartments more profitable and therefore more likely. The Winslow Apartments on Main Street were able to be built outside the prevailing rules, using a nonprofit workaround, for example.

Mayor William Martin

The biggest plan that could happen the soonest is a development on Deerfield Street, Martin explains, which could happen with the Greenfield Housing Authority.

Through the governor’s bill, the city has identified two “opportunity zones,” that allow for tax credit incentives to encourage investors to build. One of these zones is on Deerfield Street. It’s possible to build up to a 20-bedroom energy-efficient congregant housing, which Martin said could begin Jan. 1 and be completed within two years.

There is also a potential for additional affordable housing in the downtown area, where a local landlord has been in talks with city officials recently to use the opportunity zone tax break to build there. The opportunity zones are intended for developers who have the time and money to wait for their investments to grow as the tax breaks increase over time.

More roommates?

In general, Martin would like to see more single-room-occupancy units or studios, and one-bedroom apartments to satisfy the rental market that has remained tight in the last several years.

Martin suggested there needs to be more group living arrangements, co-housing or a simple shift in the culture, promoting more people rooming with others.

In Greenfield, the average household size of a rental is fewer than two people per apartment, while the state average is just over two people per apartment and the national average is around 2.5 people, according to 2016 American Community Survey census data.

The city’s zoning may need to be reviewed to make more boarding houses happen, Martin said.

More shelter beds

Despite talk about increasing shelter beds, plans discussed in the wake of the Common tent city have not materialized, yet. MJ Adams, Greenfield’s community development coordinator, says additional beds at the Wells Street ServiceNet overnight shelter will not be added this winter. Greenfield building inspectors deemed the current shelter’s second floor not suitable for housing unless there was a major, costly renovation.

The shelter beds are likely to come later on. The latest information from the state suggest there may be money after all to pay for this project, but most likely in 2019, Adams said.

She said the city would like to undertake more housing rehabilitation of abandoned and unoccupied houses, but it can be costly, especially given the older housing stock in Greenfield, which typically need to undergo costly lead abatement.

Glen Ohlund, community development director of the Franklin Regional Housing Authority, said a primary need is to increase the availability of public transportation to broaden where apartments can be built and still be practical for those without cars. But that is another solution in search of money. The Franklin Regional Transit Authority has seen tight state funding in recent years.

Leading Community Action of the Pioneer Valley, Clare Higgins, the former mayor of Northampton, speaks of the need for political will that would translate into more public money for more housing.

At the state level, Higgins said, there needs to be discussion on how to make it possible for smaller scale affordable housing units to be built in rural communities.

“It’s true that there are economies of scale when you’re building more units, but are there ways to simplify?” Higgins said. “I don’t know the answers to those questions but they are questions that need to be answered.”

Higgins said we need more reliable state and federal funding for its safety net programs like fuel assistance, which makes it more likely low-income people can stave off potential economic calamities that can lead to an eviction and homelessness.

She also called for an increase to the minimum wage, so more people can more easily afford rent.

Drawing a road map

How might a road map to a better housing future emerge?

The Interfaith Council of Franklin County met in September in Greenfield to address the homeless situation. It formed two task forces, made up of community and religious leaders — an advocacy task force to lobby for change on issues of housing and homelessness and a task force on affordable housing and housing stock to evaluate what is in the area and what is needed.

The council will likely work with the Greenfield Human Rights Commission and another ad-hoc committee formed last month by City Council President Karen “Rudy” Renaud.

The Greenfield Affordable Housing Partnership ad-hoc committee will report to the council monthly, and it will have one year to report back with a full report on the state of homelessness and affordable housing in Greenfield.

Back in 2014, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments penned its report, now five years ago, that called for more state and federal funding opportunities for smaller, rural projects, and tasked the community to form a more centralized group to routinely take on these questions. None of that materialized – until now.

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:

jsolomon@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 264