Guest columnist Jim Reis: Northampton’s affordable housing challenge 

  • In this 2019 file photo, Valley Community Development Corporation held an open house for its 55-unit complex of affordable apartments on Pleasant Street in Northampton. Gazette file photo

Published: 1/24/2022 1:39:07 PM

As most people in this area are aware, Northampton has a serious housing affordability problem, and it is only getting worse.

According to a study completed by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in 2019, 52% of residents who rent in Northampton spend more than half of their income on rent and utilities, and 30% of homeowners spend more than a third on their mortgage and utilities. Those who spend over 30% of their income on housing are considered by the federal government to be “cost burdened.”

The average sale price of a home has increased from $283,000 in 2015 to $383,000 in 2021. The new mayor, Gina-Louise Sciarra, and City Council members have voiced concern about this issue. Here are some suggested actions that could be taken:

1. Meet with local nonprofit developers (Valley Community Development, Way Finders, and Habitat for Humanity) and interested private developers to compile a detailed list of obstacles and resource needs to build more affordable homes and rental units.

2. Work closely with Northampton’s Housing Partnership, a mayoral-appointed volunteer board which has recommended, or is exploring, the following issues:

■Reactivate the dormant Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

■Finalize a home-rule petition to prohibit rental agencies charging tenants a fee, and instead have the fee be paid by the landlord.

■Advocate for an increase in the maximum rental subsidy for Section 8 participants in Hampshire County. For example, in the past five years, only 189 out of 557 vouchers issued by the Northampton Housing Authority successfully leased-up in Northampton. Most were forced to lease up in Hampden County where housing is less expensive. Congressman Jim McGovern has agreed to set up a meeting with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to address this problem.

■Analyze the possibility of establishing a real estate transfer fee on expensive homes to generate revenue for affordable housing projects, as several other cities in Massachusetts have done.

■·Create a housing navigator specialist position based in Northampton’s Community Resilience Hub when it is established. Responsibilities would include not only direct service to clients, but also having sufficient time to create a comprehensive written and online listing of federal, state, city and nonprofit housing subsidies, vouchers, subsidized apartments, emergency funds, and other housing related services which does not exist, and to also establish relationships with area sympathetic landlords. The Hub should not only provide for some of the basic needs of the homeless, but primarily promote rapid rehousing.

3. Explore ways that the city’s Community Preservation Committee could approve an increased percentage of funds for housing, such as regularly funding the Housing Trust, as Amherst does. Currently, many other cities and towns in Massachusetts spend a higher percentage than Northampton on housing projects.

4. Review the zoning changes approved this past year that were intended to increase affordable housing, but may have some unintended consequences in allowing the building of more high-end homes in the Bay State and other sections of the city.

5. Increase lead remediation funding from Community Development Block Grant funds and other sources — 50.8% of all homes in Northampton were built before 1950. Lead paint was banned in 1978 and homes built before that date are most likely to have lead paint in them, which is especially dangerous for families with young children.

Hopefully, these ideas, along with those of our city officials, community agencies and citizens, will increasingly enable low- and moderate-income people to live in our city.

Jim Reis, of Northampton, is a retired associate executive director of Way Finders, and a former member of Northampton’s Housing Partnership.

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