Forum speakers say persistence, flexibility and teamwork key to solving housing crisis

  • SUHOSKI

  • The former Montague Center School was renovated into apartments by Mark and Barbara Zaccheo, seen in 2017. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

  • Greenfield Community Economic Development Director MJ Adams, pictured outside City Hall, says that while Greenfield doesn’t have any large municipally owned properties, it is spending a lot of time looking at smaller properties. The housing stock consists of many two-, three- and four-family homes. Staff File Photo/Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 5/7/2021 2:31:26 PM
Modified: 5/7/2021 2:34:56 PM

Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski says working to solve the local housing crisis is never a one-person task — it takes an entire community.

“Our town, an iconic New England mill town, has made great strides, but there’s a long way to go,” he told those who sponsored and attended the most recent housing forum held by Greening Greenfield and Franklin County Continuing the Political Revolution (FCCPR). “We have no housing in Athol. A single-family home is listed and goes within a few hours, and we have very few rentals.”

The nine-forum series, “Homelessness: Our Housing Crisis and Call to Action,” continued on Wednesday with guest speakers Suhoski, Greenfield Community Economic Development Director MJ Adams and Montague Town Planner Walter Ramsey talking about what municipalities can do to help with the housing crisis.

The three were part of the forum, “Housing Reclamation: Municipal-Owned Abandoned Buildings for Affordable Housing,” moderated by Greenfield resident Dorothy McIver.

Suhoski said it is important for cities and towns to oversee transformation investments. Many have redeveloped former hospitals and schools into housing for low-income residents, seniors and others. For example, he said Athol has been working on a project that will turn two elementary schools into housing.

Having been town manager since 2014, Suhoski said there has been a transformational investment of more than $250 million with 300,000 square feet of new commercial construction, an $8 million expansion and renovation of the library, a 50,000-square-foot expansion of Athol Hospital, redevelopment of a downtown mill, ongoing downtown revitalization and now the housing development at the former schools that will eventually provide 53 housing units.

“In a snapshot, Athol has a population of 11,700,” he said. “We have an older housing stock — 49 percent were built before 1939. Our Housing Action Plan was last updated in 2014,and since 2016, more than 120 vacant and abandoned properties have been removed from the inventory.”

Suhoski said the town’s housing stock is “grossly” insufficient. He noted municipal strategies for abandoned and distressed properties have been taking them by tax title or receivership, but instead should be working with developers with an eye toward redevelopment.

That’s what’s happening on the former Ellen Bigelow and Riverbend Elementary schools’ campus.

“The project highlights include 53 affordable housing units, a historically sensitive renovation, a new connecting structure with 20 one-bedroom senior units and on-site management,” he said. “The project, which will go on the tax rolls, is estimated to cost $30 million. It will create a lot of ‘green space’ for the neighborhood.

“These buildings have been sitting vacant, as have other buildings,” Suhoski continued. “Every city and town has at least one. Cities and towns can find grants and other funding, working with the state and others, including developers. It can be done.”

Suhoski said the takeaway for him is that cities and towns have to be creative and resilient because most projects take years to complete; they have to build enthusiasm and educate nay-sayers; they need to be sure to provide governing bodies with facts about the project; and, most important, they must never give up.

Greenfield

Adams said the county is lucky to have the Franklin County Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which guides individuals, municipalities and others through housing difficulties and provides information about all types of resources available to them.

She said while Greenfield doesn’t have any large municipally owned properties, it is spending a lot of time looking at smaller properties. The housing stock consists of many two-, three- and four-family homes, as well as single-family homes.

“We live in a community of 17,250 people,” she said. “We’re somewhat diverse, but getting more. Fifteen percent of our housing stock is subsidized.”

Adams said the city doesn’t like to see people displaced, so if a multi-family or single-family home is in distress, the city will try to work with the owner or landlord.

“We also reach out to the lenders, who are usually willing to work with us,” she said. “We try to get people the resources they need, the assistance they need. We don’t want blight in our neighborhoods.”

Adams said the city’s inventory of abandoned or distressed buildings was up to 143, but 75 of those have been resolved and there have been 45 enforcements. Four of them were most recently identified.

“We’ve had successes on Deerfield and Cedar streets, for instance,” she said.

Her takeaways include how good it feels when the private market works.

“We also like to work with property owners to solve issues of vacancy, but don’t hesitate to engage lenders if owners aren’t responsive,” she said. “We encourage and support landlords with landlord education and housing rehab funds, especially if they are owner-occupants in a multi-family home.”

She said Greenfield works to help owners with vacancy issues, and the city turns to receivership as a last resort.

Montague

Ramsey, who has been town planner for 11 years, explained Montague consists of five “traditional” mill villages: Turners Falls, Millers Falls, Montague City, Montague Center and Lake Pleasant.

“They are small villages with diverse housing stocks,” he said. “We’ve started thinking about how to get back to 10 percent affordable housing using (vacant) mill buildings, schools and churches that have closed or consolidated.”

Ramsey said there is a lot of demand from people who want to age in place.

“There’s a high demand for senior housing,” he said. “We’re using Community Development Block Grants to bring places up to code.”

He said Montague Center School, which was converted into housing several years ago, is one of the town’s success stories. Though zoning bylaws needed to be changed and there were abutters who were opposed to the project, a local developer renovated the building and today it is a “net-zero” property.

There was also a renovation project done by another local developer in the middle of Millers Falls’ downtown. Today, he said there are nine new rentals and three storefronts.

“The town created a historic district there and basically the whole village center has been fixed,” Ramsey said. “This is how you show the community that things are happening. We breathed life into the village again.”

Ramsey said there is “more to come” in Montague. There are six former mill sites that are vacant and it has been a multi-decade effort on the town’s part to see them revitalized. Four of those are in tax title or town ownership.

“Housing has always been part of the plan,” he said, noting that the former Railroad Salvage property is a “critical component.”

Ramsey explained that the canal district is a good place for housing because there is a bike path, food stores, restaurants and the Post Office within walking distance.

“The takeaway for me is that things like this take time,” he said. “You have to stick to your objectives but be flexible. Cities and towns have to maintain momentum and they have to create a climate for investment.”

The next online housing forum, “How Do We Pay for the Housing We Want?” will be held Wednesday, May 12, at 6:30 p.m. The last forum, “Achieving Affordability with Clean Energy,” will be held Wednesday, May 19, at 6:30 p.m.

To register for an upcoming forum or view previous ones, or for more information, visit housingishumanright.com.

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.


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