Affordable housing under microscope: Housing chair visits region on listening tour to hear about challenges

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 09-10-2023 11:55 AM

CHESTER — Making good on an offer she extended during a recent legislative debate, East Boston Sen. Lydia Edwards visited Chester on Thursday to learn more about the challenges involved in developing affordable housing in the hinterlands of western Massachusetts.

It was part of a two-day trip for Edwards, who also found time to visit Fitchburg, Holyoke, Great Barrington, Springfield, Hadley and Greenfield.

In Chester, Edwards, who chairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing, joined Sen. Paul Mark, D-Becket, on a tour of the Chester Commons, the town’s former high school, which is undergoing extensive renovations since its purchase in 2020 by the Hilltown Community Development Corp.

The building was originally converted to affordable housing in 1987, but had fallen into disrepair under the previous ownership. Hilltown CDC’s aim was to preserve the 15 units of affordable housing for seniors and those with disabilities, while bringing the building up to modern standards of habitability and accessibility.

Among the renovations the CDC plans are a new, propane-fired boiler, an elevator, sprinkler system, window repairs or replacement, and extensive roof and masonry work. The work is expected to take 12 to 18 months, Hilltown CDC Housing Director Paul Lischetti said.

With a total construction budget of $4.7 million, “it’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done,” Executive Director Dave Christopolis told Edwards.

In addition, Christopolis made note of ongoing repairs to the septic system, a cost that urban developments with access to municipal sewer systems don’t need to worry about.

Sources of funds include the Massachusetts Housing Stabilization Fund and the Housing Innovations Fund, each of which contributed $1.675 million; $670,000 from the MassDevelopment Underutilized Properties Program, and $650,000 from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston; state and federal historic tax credits, and a $50,000 grant from the Charlesbank Homes Foundation.

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Christopolis said a prime challenge in developing affordable housing in Massachusetts is piecing together the various funding sources and following the administrative requirements of each.

Tenants are low-income, Lischetti said, and the fair market rents on the one-bedroom units — $947 a month — are subsidized by Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program.

The building, which opened as a school in 1923, also contains the Hamilton Memorial Library. The class of 1968 was the last to graduate from the school, according to the Chester High School Alumni and Friends blog.

Hadley session

In Hadley on Friday, Edwards met with a group of regional housing leaders along with Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, at the former Econo Lodge.

Valley Community Development bought the Route 9 property in January for $4.1 million, with the aim of converting the former hotel into 50 units of affordable housing, Executive Director Alexis Breiteneicher said.

First, Valley CDC needed approval of a change in use from the Hadley Zoning Board of Appeals. Both the Select Board and the Planning Board voted to support the project, but the Zoning Board voted it down.

Valley CDC has appealed the denial to the state’s Housing Appeals Committee and is awaiting a ruling on its motion for summary judgment.

Meanwhile, Craig’s Doors, which runs a shelter in Amherst, has rented the ground floor on a one-year contract and is housing 38 homeless individuals, mostly two per room, Executive Director Tim McCarthy said.

“We’re always at capacity,” he said.

Before meeting with the housing advocates upstairs, Edwards said she had learned that affordable housing projects in the western part of the state face a different challenge from those in the east.

“It’s amazing how many more shovel-ready projects there are here,” she said. “They just lack the funding.”

In the eastern part of the state, she said, the obstacle isn’t the money so much as the space to build.

The Legislature’s housing bond bill, set to be released soon, should provide the needed funding for some of those projects, she said.

James Pentland can be reached at jpentland@gazettenet.com]]>