Affordable housing recommendations to go before residents

  • The Riverbend School, now under construction to become a mixed senior housing project. On Sept. 20, a series of recommendations to increase affordable housing in Athol will be presented, and topics will include potential sites.  File Photo

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 9/13/2023 5:02:19 PM
Modified: 9/13/2023 5:02:18 PM

ATHOL –Next Wednesday, residents will be able to see a draft of affordable housing recommendations which followed a lengthy assessment process.

The presentation will take place at 6 p.m. on Sept. 20 at the Athol Public Library and will include suggestions for how Athol can reach the goal of having 10 percent of its housing stock be designated as ‘affordable.’

The state law Chapter 40B requires cities and towns to ensure that at least 10 percent of the housing stock qualify as affordable. It also provides what’s known as “safe harbor” to municipalities that fall below the 10 percent threshold – this applies to Athol – if they can demonstrate progress toward meeting minimum annual housing growth targets.

At the upcoming meeting, Athol Planning and Development Director Eric Smith said there will be a “focus on the draft recommendations based on the community input we had back in the May meeting.”

Housing assessment

Back in May, members of the public were invited to give their opinions on the best way to provide more affordable housing in Athol. Karen Sunnaborg, a consultant hired by the town to conduct the assessment, provided a presentation on the community’s housing needs. This looked at demographic, economic and housing characteristics in Athol, as well as trends designed to provide a better understanding of the current housing market dynamic.

Sunnaborg explained that Athol currently has 5,257 year-round housing units, 261 of which count as affordable housing—just under 5 percent of the total stock. An additional 100 units are either under construction or in the planning stages and when complete, this will push Athol’s affordable housing to 7 percent of the total stock. The units Sunnaborg referred to are those included in the Riverbend/Bigelow project, plus the 43 units included in a proposed, privately-funded downtown housing development.

“If people can attend that (September) meeting, then they can get all of the information and offer their feedback,” Smith said. “We’ll have a draft plan and eventually that will have to go to the Selectboard and the Planning Board to get the plan approved before we can submit it to the state. So, there will be more opportunity to review it. We want to get as much input as possible before putting together that final draft.”

Smith said the final draft would also go before the Board of Planning and Community Development which, acting in an advisory capacity, would determine whether to recommend it to the Selectboard. The Selectboard, if it approves, would then submit the plan to the state Office of Housing and Livable Communities for endorsement.

Asked if town-owned properties eyed as sites for housing would remain under municipal ownership, Smith said used the Riverbend and Bigelow schools—currently being renovated to become a mixed-use senior housing project—as an example. In this case, the town does own the buildings, but the development is being overseen by NewVue Communities of Fitchburg. NewVue is putting together financing for the nearly $30 million project, which will include affordable housing and historic preservation tax breaks, grants and direct government support.

Smith said most of the properties being looked at as potential housing are currently owned by the town and “others are basically Brownfields properties that are sitting vacant and could maybe be reused for housing.”

Greg Vine can be reached at

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