To make a lasting impact on diversity, equity and inclusion in Williamstown, we should turn our attention to housing.
Yes, we need to be mindful of the Indigenous people displaced by those who founded Williamstown. Yes, we need to redact racist deed covenants. Yes, we need to ensure that we have a Police Department that treats everyone fairly and equally, regardless of their color, their heritage, or their gender.
Let’s also address what is Williamstown’s most obvious source of exclusion: entrenched resistance to diversifying the housing stock here, especially toward affordable units.
Many homeowners regard their property as an investment that should appreciate in value. Some homeowners see the addition of affordable housing in their community as a threat to the value of their property, especially when the housing units would be located close by. That sentiment is present in Williamstown and in affluent communities throughout the country. ProPublica explains it well in its article “Separated by Design: How Some of America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing.”
Spurred by the sudden loss of low-income housing for about 300 residents when Hurricane Irene flooded The Spruces in 2011, Williamstown has made notable progress. Since Irene, Williamstown has added 13 affordable housing units at Cable Mills and 40 at Highland Woods. When the Cole Avenue Development (former Photec mill site) is completed this summer, another 41 units of affordable housing will be available. These are all rental units. On the home-ownership side, the town’s DeMayo Mortgage Assistance Program has helped 20 qualifying families move here by providing grants up to $15,000 that are forgiven after the family has owned their home for five years. In partnership with the Habitat for Humanity, two new affordable single-family homes are being built near Cole Avenue. I applaud those efforts and thank the many folks who have helped make them happen.
Despite these gains, it’s also important to note the recent history of exclusion and classism in Williamstown, manifest in housing policy decisions and adherence to the status quo. Some may recall in 2013 a difficult townwide debate over a proposal to replace housing lost at the Spruces with modular housing on the undeveloped “Lowry Property” off of Stratton Road. Upon learning that it might be developed for affordable housing, some Stratton Road residents organized an intense campaign of opposition. Some Spruces residents exclaimed at a community meeting that opponents didn’t want to see “trailer trash” living in their neighborhood. Ultimately the Select Board capitulated under pressure; the Lowry property remains a hayfield.
A more recent town squabble centered on whether to allow “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs. These are small, secondary homes that can be rented. Seattle and other communities with very high housing costs have embraced ADUs as a way to increase affordable units through admixture. In Williamstown, the primary argument against ADU’s was the impact to the “character” of neighborhoods. After an acrimonious two-year debate, a supermajority at the 2019 town meeting voted to allow ADUs. However, since then, just one ADU has been built.
Moreover, many promising affordable housing ideas haven’t even made it out of committee — just ask our beleaguered Planning Board. This group has encountered perennial resistance to zoning bylaw changes that would help diversify housing in Williamstown.
Until Jan. 13, all Massachusetts towns could only change zoning bylaws with approval by at least two-thirds of voters at town meeting. That’s a high bar, intended to ensure that communities take measured steps in land use. But it has also made the job easier for opponents of affordable-housing initiatives.
That’s now changed. Gov. Charlie Baker has signed into law the “housing choice” legislation that reduces the requirement to a simple majority for zoning changes related to affordable housing.
Recent events have shown us that when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, we’ve got a long way to go. Residents of Williamstown: Please help advocate for more affordable housing here and for aspiring to have a community that welcomes anyone who wishes to live here.