Amherst Working on Affordable Housing

The proposal to establish an Amherst Affordable Housing Trust Fund, known as Article Six, was defeated in the Nov. 10 special town meeting, but town officials are hopeful it will pass in the spring.
Town officials said the article was defeated primarily due to fear of the town being liable for debt incurred by the Trust.
According to the Amherst town Web site, the Trust's "purpose shall be to provide for the creation and preservation of affordable housing for the benefit of low and moderate income households."
The creation and preservation of affordable housing is currently preformed by the Housing Partnership/Fair Housing Committee (HP/FH), an Amherst town committee, and the Amherst Housing Authority (AHA), a state agency.
Although the Select Board would appoint the Trust's Board of Trustees, it would be an independent agency. This would allow the Trust "more flexibility to investigate and develop affordable housing" than town committees, according to Nancy Gregg, chair of the HP/FH. Gregg said the Trust would have more flexibility because it could spend money to create and preserve affordable housing at any time, whereas town committees have to wait for the approval of a town meeting.
Roy Rosenblatt, a staff member of the HP/FH, said the Trust would also have more flexibility to develop affordable housing than
the AHA because the developement would be the Trust's sole purpose, while the AHA has other additional responsibilities and commitments.
Town officials also noted a housing Trust would be more likely to receive donations of money or property than town or state agencies.
The article had approval from the Planning board, the Finance committee and the Select Board, as well as the support of the Town Manager and the League of Women Voters, yet failed to pass. According to Laurence Shaffer, Town Manager of Amherst, this was due to concern the town would assume debt incurred by the Trust.
Shaffer said Amherst would not be responsible for the Trust's debt, but this was not explained clearly enough at the town meeting.
"People expressed concern about the trust and frankly we didn't do as good a job as we might have in allaying those concerns," Shaffer said. "People want to have a more formal conversation about how the Trust's liability is structured and whether or not there is any way that liability passes through to the town. Hopefully we will make it clearer the town would not be responsible for the Trust's debt at the next meeting."
Gregg said some also may have voted against the Trust because it would not answer to town meetings.
"There are some people who cling to every power the town meeting has," Gregg said.
She said others were confused about how the Trust would benefit affordable housing more than the current system. Gregg also said "a reluctance to want more affordable housing in Amherst" may have helped defeat the trust. She said the failure of the proposed Butternut Farms affordable housing project provides some proof of this.
Originally proposed in 2002, Gregg said residents of the neighborhood where the project is supposed to be built have stalled the approval process.
"Some people were very irate about it," Gregg said.
Gerald Weiss, chair of the Select Board, said he does not believe reluctance to want more affordable housing among Amherst residents helped defeat the Trust. He did agree that Butternut Farms has been stalled by neighborhood residents though, and cited the several lawsuits brought against the town that tried to stop the project.
However, Weiss said that not all who oppose Butternut Farms do so because they object to having affordable housing near them.
"There is a fine line between the neighbors "having a not-in-my-backyard mentality,' and having legitimate concerns," he said. "I think there were some things that were done badly when this first came forward that helped generate a sense of distrust … The neighborhood people felt like nobody was paying any attention to them. They felt the town was not listening to their concerns about density and traffic and the appropriateness of the size and scope of the project in that neighborhood."
Town officials expect the proposed affordable housing project on Olympia Drive to proceed more smoothly because it is on town-owned land.
According to Roy Rosenblatt, Amherst currently has about 900 units of affordable housing, about 11 percent of Amherst's total housing. To be considered affordable, the housing has to be available to those earning less than 80 percent of the area's median income.
According to 2000 census data cited in a recent report on the town's Web site concerning low income housing in Amherst: half of renters were spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, about a third were spending more than 50 percent, and 18 percent of homeowners were spending more than 30 percent.


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