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Officials challenge plan to phase out affordable units at Rolling Green Apartments in Amherst

AMHERST — Even though Rolling Green Apartments has prepaid a mortgage that could end an affordability mandate, the company may be obligated to set aside a portion of its 204 units for low-income residents.

Officials and an attorney representing the Amherst Housing Authority have written to Equity Residential, the property owner, suggesting Equity hold off on rent increases until a determination is made on whether a regulatory agreement it signed for the 30-year mortgage requires continuing to house families holding federal Section 8 vouchers.

Equity last month notified town and Housing Authority officials, and began informing tenants, that rents would rise after it repaid the loan from the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency.

Now, 40 families with Section 8 vouchers call Rolling Green home, but Equity will begin increasing rents as their leases expire.

In an Aug. 28 letter to property manager Lynn Ford, the executive director of the Housing Authority, Denise LeDuc, cited appendix A of the regulatory agreement that “upon prepayment, all eligible households are expected to receive special enhanced Section 8 rental assistance.”

But Denise Boklach Beihoffer, first vice president for legal at Equity, argued in a Sept. 3 response that this agreement is no longer binding upon prepayment and that Equity “is entitled, based on the payoff of the mortgage loan, to immediately bump all rental rates, including those for renewing residents, to market rates.”

Still, Beihoffer wrote that Equity does not want to lose families. “We are hopeful that the renewal rates offered to these existing residents will allow them to continue using their Section 8 vouchers and remain in their homes,” she writes.

Exploring preservation

Felicity Hardee, a partner with the Bulkley Richardson law firm which represents the Amherst Housing Authority, sent a letter Friday saying that Equity and the authority should proceed in attempting to obtain these enhanced Section 8 vouchers, even though it is a challenging economic time to do so with the federal Housing and Urban Development.

“This is vital since the failure to do so will deprive long-term residents of the affordable housing which the regulatory agreement is meant to protect,” Hardee wrote.

Town Manager John Musante said he is appreciative of what is being done on behalf of tenants.

“That’s an objective the town very much shares and made clear with discussions so far with Equity Residential,” Musante said.

He said it remains important to explore what is possible to preserve some or all of the affordable units.

“The sense I get from them is a willingness to explore a preservation option,” Musante said.

The town is engaging with the Massachusetts Housing Partnership on developing a plan. This agency is providing a report for the next steps at the neighboring Echo Village Apartments. This will give financial scenarios and potential sources and uses of funds for keeping affordable units there.

Section 8 vouchers already cover higher rents in Amherst because the Amherst Housing Authority petitioned the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for an exception. This has allowed Section 8 rents to be at 120 percent of the fair market rents for the Springfield metropolitan area, which includes Amherst.

In Amherst, Section 8 vouchers can be used to pay up to $748 per month for studio apartments, $897 for one-bedroom units, $1,122 for two bedrooms, $1,400 for three bedrooms and $1,596 for four bedrooms.

LeDuc’s letter also pointed out that Equity has not met the statutory requirements under state law to provide written notice when terminating affordability.

Beihoffer responded that this was not necessary because Equity did not receive any project-based rental assistance that would trigger these notice requirements.

Hardee, though, said this issue could be settled in court. “If tenants seeking to maintain the affordability of their units were to assert such an argument, we believe that it is likely that the Housing Court in Springfield, which has jurisdiction over these matters, would probably reach this result.”

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