In visit, Polito lauds Williamstown for its affordable housing efforts

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WILLIAMSTOWN — When it comes to affordable housing, Williamstown is setting a good example.

That was the message from Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito on Tuesday, during a visit designed to promote the state's proposed Act to Promote Housing Choices.

"We're here to spotlight what your community is doing to address those housing needs," Polito said, congratulating town officials for their efforts to expand the types of housing available for working families.

She made her remarks at the Highland Woods senior housing complex, which was partially built with state money — an effort to replace some of the senior housing lost when Tropical Storm Irene flooded The Spruces in 2011. On hand with Polito was Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy.

The Act to Promote Housing Choices, legislation filed by Gov. Charlie Baker in February, calls for targeted zoning reform to advance new housing production in Massachusetts and support the administration's goal to produce 135,000 new housing units by 2025.

Several local officials endorsed the Baker-Polito proposal, partially because it would erase the state law that requires a two-thirds majority vote at town meeting to allow changes to local zoning bylaws. If the administration's proposal is approved by the Legislature, zoning bylaw changes could pass with a simple majority.

The Williamstown Planning Board has been struggling with the housing issue for a few years, and continues to do so with a warrant article that would make some changes to the zoning bylaw next month. The local article is designed to make it easier to split a single-family structure into a two-family, and ease up on restrictions to building accessory dwelling units in town.

Like much of the rest of Massachusetts, Williamstown is trying to create housing that would allow a more economically diverse pool of residents, one that includes housing that is affordable for working professionals such as educators, police officers and mail carriers.

The state's Act to Promote Housing Choices proposal will not require municipalities to make any zoning changes, but would permit communities that want to rezone for new housing development to do so more easily. It also would reduce the voting threshold to a simple majority vote for certain multi-family or mixed-use projects with at least 10 percent affordable units in centers of commercial activity within a municipality.

Polito noted that the state has not been keeping up with housing needs, even though the state is home to a growing population.

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The housing shortage, she said, is proving particularly challenging for senior citizens, recent graduates and young families.

"We're clearly off track," Polito said.

Every community wants to preserve its unique character, she said, "and we don't want to compromise that, but sometimes towns can be very parochial when it comes to zoning."

Polito noted that Williamstown's diligence in seeking ways to diversify housing and enhance the local economy helped it land a $250,000 state grant to help in the construction of the new police station.

She also said Williamstown has been designated a Housing Choice Community, one of 69 out of 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts.

Local officials endorsed the state proposal, noting that eliminating the need for a two-thirds majority vote to pass a zoning change would remove a significant barrier to increasing the housing stock.

Select Board Vice Chairman Jeffrey Thomas said the proposal would help Williamstown by making it easier "to increase the stock of affordable housing, an urgent need here. A simple majority vote to make housing-related zoning changes here would let us adapt to ever-changing housing needs and help ensure our town's long-term vibrancy."

Amy Jeschawitz, chairwoman of the Williamstown Planning Board, said the board has been working for three years "to offer solutions for our community's housing needs. Where we struggle most is adapting best practices to our 30-year-old residential zoning bylaws. The threshold of a simple majority would help us get there."

Elton Ogden, president of Berkshire Housing Development Corp., which oversaw the Highland Woods project, also endorsed the effort to eliminate the two-thirds rule, as did Town Manager Jason Hoch, state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams.

"Providing viable housing is critical to the success of any community, and stimulating production in the Berkshires would allow municipalities like Williamstown to retain and attract the talent necessary to unlock new growth. But current zoning reform requirements make this nearly impossible for developers," Kennealy said. "Our Housing Choice legislation is the commonwealth's best shot to address the current shortage before it constrains the growth of our economy."

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.


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