Saturday September 8, 2012

LENOX -- After several years of delay caused by a sharply declining housing market and tight lending policies, the town’s long-awaited, $20 million Saw Mill Brook Affordable Housing Project is showing signs it’s moving forward.

During a briefing for town leaders this past week, Timothy Geller, executive director of the Community Development Corp. of South Berkshire, voiced optimism over prospects for the now-undeveloped site on the northeast corner of Routes 7 and 20 at Housatonic Street.

In May 2011, after no interest had been shown in the project by commercial real-estate developers, Town Meeting voters approved a $600,000 bond to buy the land with Community Preservation Act funds, repayable to the town on a timetable to be worked out by a newly named developer.

The town designated the CDC, an old hand at affordable-housing complexes, to oversee the project on land formerly zoned as commercial and considered in the 1980s for an upscale shopping-outlet mall and, six years ago, for a Marriott Hotel resort. Both were shot down by town voters.

"The project had come through a pretty stark halt in the housing downturn and the financing markets’ meltdown," Geller said, "and the idea was essentially to buy time in hopes that both those things would loosen up and we could get back in the game. And that’s starting to happen."

Geller predicted that next year, the spigot for state funding of affordable-housing developments would turn back on, "which is a huge thing." The best-case scenario is that the CDC could borrow funds through the state to launch the local project by completing the site design.

"I’m very optimistic," said Geller.

The project would contain 20 affordable, permanently deed-restricted town-home units to be owned by who meet income-eligibility guidelines, along with 30 other units to be sold at market rates.

The affordable units could be purchased by families earning less than 80 percent of the county’s median income; for a family of four, that’s up to $62,000 a year, according to estimates released last year.

On the 20-acre site, about four and a half acres would be developed with the rest devoted to open space and preservation of existing wetlands.

Market rates for the townhouses would range from $300,000 to $500,000, said Geller, while the affordable units would sell for $160,000 to $210,000, depending on their size.

"We wanted to target the greatest need in town Š home ownership," said Geller. "It is unique and courageous in that way," drawing a contrast with many comparable projects that offer only rental housing.

"It is a very acceptable and desirable community purpose for a piece of land that the owners needed to sell and that the town would see something productive and positive made out of it," said Deborah Burke, a member of the town’s Affordable Housing Committee.

"This is a project that has come up out of the community, then through the Episcopal Diocese, then to the town," Burke added.

She cited deep-rooted neighborhood support for the proposal. "That is perhaps unique because this doesn’t happen with most of these projects."

Affordable housing units are not reserved for local residents, because federal funding that supports the project bars geographic discrimination. But town citizens could win preference through a weighted lottery system once the units are constructed.

Geller pointed out that the project would be constructed and marketed locally and typically, 90 percent of the units would be purchased by residents of Lenox and surrounding South County communities.

"The financing for projects like this are very complex," Geller said, adding that price ranges and income-eligibility guidelines are subject to adjustment.

"It will all depend on financial viability," he said. "No one is going to lend us money from the state- or private-financing sources if the project doesn’t pan out."