Affordable Housing Trust commits $375K to future housing development in Amherst

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 08-14-2023 3:21 PM

AMHERST — A North Amherst development that will include 30 affordable homes in 15 duplexes, giving home-ownership opportunities to families, is being financially supported by the Amherst Affordable Housing Trust.

The trust voted 5-2 on Aug. 10 to commit $375,000 to Valley Community Development’s Amherst Community Homes, a $17.17 million development on just over 9 acres off Ball Lane. The homes are to be part of the state’s Commonwealth Builders program, which provides a subsidy for first-time homebuyers and also aims to increase home ownership for Black, Indigenous and people of color communities and enhance generational wealth.

The trust’s support for the mix of two- and three-bedroom duplexes supplements $750,000 already coming from the town’s Community Preservation Act account.

Jessica Allan, real estate project manager for Valley CDC, said the idea of the project is to provide first-time homebuyers with access to new dwellings. “It is very rare to have this program and to have it available,” Allan said.

Valley CDC expects $8.1 million to come to the project from Commonwealth Builders, or $250,000 per unit, and the state is also adding contingency money because of high construction costs, Allan said. Estimates are that the development will have $11.4 million in construction costs by 2026.

Laura Baker, real estate development director for Valley CDC, said the state is going beyond its usual program caps to make these projects work.

“They’ve definitely upped their contribution,” Baker said.

Ranging in size from 995 to 1,273 square feet, the homes will be restricted as affordable under a 30-year deed, or for those making 80% and 100% of the area median income. At 80% of the area median income, the anticipated sales prices would be $150,000 or $163,400 for the 18 two-bedroom homes and $179,400 for the 12 three-bedroom homes. The prices would be higher for those earning at 100% of area median income, topping out at $232,000 for three-bedroom homes. Final sales prices will be set by MassHousing, Allan said.

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Incomes for a two-person household to meet the 80% area median income threshold is $63,800, a three-person household is $71,800 and a four-person household is $79,700. At 100% area median income, the thresholds are $75,000, $84,350 and $93,700, respectively.

Those voting for the town’s financial support included Erica Piedade, who co-chairs the trust. Piedade said the project will have a ripple effect of having families coming into Amherst as homeowners.

“I think this is such an important initiative,” Piedade said.

The trust would have $490,628 left in accounts for other projects, trust member Allegra Clark said.

“It feels like exactly the kind of project we want,” said Trust Co-Chairwoman Carol Lewis.

They were joined in support by members Grover Wehman-Brown, Risha Hess and Rob Crowner.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman, who serves on the trust, and Aschleigh Jensen, voted against the spending.

Bockelman said his concern wasn’t that he doesn’t support the plans, but that the trust should hold off on committing the money until other projects that may need money are known.

Jensen said she is concerned that condominiums and small houses are being sold at market rate for the same prices in many neighboring communities, without getting the state subsidy, and the trust should find other ways to make housing more affordable.

“If you just don’t live in Amherst, this is exactly what you get, or a tiny bit below,” Jensen said

But Allan notes that Amherst has a reputation for schools and community that helps drive demand for homes and apartments.

Still, Amherst is a qualified census tract, or QCT, designated by the federal Housing and Urban Development based on population and socio-economic data. That allows such a project to happen.

Amherst has the only two QCTs in the entire county, Allan said. The other is closer to Amherst center and near East Hadley Road.

“You are the envy of a lot of municipalities,” Allan said.

The Ball Lane site once had a trucking and agricultural building that has been demolished, leaving just concrete slabs while an 800-square-foot rental house will remain. The development would be what Allan describes as clusters of little neighborhoods, with open space, preserving a field at the corner of Montague Road, also known as state Route 63, and Pulpit Hill Road. About half the site will be open space.

It is also close to parks, including Puffer’s Pond and Mill River Recreation Area, goods and services in the Mill District, and near a bus stop. The University of Massachusetts is less than two miles from the location.

“We think it’s a beautiful site,” Allan said.

Since plans first unveiled about a year ago, one adjustment has been not to have any of the duplexes be sold at market rate. Allan said the problem is these would have been priced too high, at around $500,000, to be marketed.

A market study, though, said there would be no problem selling the affordable homes. “This is way below what the market is in Amherst,” Allan said.

Valley CDC will be filing plans through the state’s Chapter 40B allowing the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals to review the project and issue a comprehensive permit, even if the development doesn’t comply with all town zoning.

Planning Director Christine Brestrup told Zoning Board of Appeals that she expects an application to be filed within four to six weeks. Brestrup said the project is moving more quickly than development of affordable apartments planned for the former East Street School and properties on Belchertown Road in the East Amherst village center being handled by Way Finders.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>