Athol downtown housing study unveiled

  • Main Street, Athol. According to a recent housing study, potential residents of downtown apartments are looking for a variety of restaurants, outdoor enjoyment space or public green space, perception of safety, and convenient public transportation. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 10/16/2020 3:54:12 PM
Modified: 10/16/2020 3:54:03 PM

ATHOL — While results of a study presented to the Downtown Vitality Committee Tuesday night indicated Athol could use more in the way of both affordable and market rate housing, it also illustrated where the community stands in relation to several economic measurements when compared to the rest of Worcester County and the state. An overview of the downtown housing study was provided to the committee by Paula Robinson, a partner in the consulting firm of Finepoint Associates, based in Brookline and Westford, which compiled the document. It was paid for with a grant from the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

The study found that Athol currently has approximately 5,380 housing units, comprised mainly of single-family homes, and that two-thirds of the housing stock is more than 60 years old. In addition, 29 percent of available housing units are in multi-unit buildings which, the study says, is “significantly lower” than the rest of the county and the commonwealth.

While home ownership has increased over the past decade, the availability of rental units has dropped and, again, is lower than the county and state. The American Community Survey for 2018 found that Athol’s vacancy rate for single-family homes is three percent, while that for rental units stands at 3½ percent.

“There are about 387 units in our downtown study area,” she continued, “and about half of it is in fair or poor condition, according to a recent study.”

She went on to say that overall housing costs in Athol, while increasing, are nonetheless “very modest.”

“In August 2020, the median sale price for a home was $202,000. That’s up 12 percent year over year. However, it’s still significantly lower than the county — 42 percent lower. So, housing in Athol is a bargain.”

The cost of renting town-wide is also relatively modest, ranging from $700 or $800 a month for a one-bedroom unit to up to $1,300 for a two-bedroom apartment. Downtown, the prices are even cheaper, with a one-bedroom unit going for $800 to $850 a month, and a two-bedroom renting for around $900.

“It does appear there may be demand for additional housing in Athol,” Robinson said. “The population is growing, slowly, more slowly than the county and the state, but it’s still growing. And the vacancy rates are in the low to healthy range, according to American Community Survey.

“According to local Realtors, they told us that the current vacancy rate is very low — like practically zero — and that people are afraid to move out of their apartments because they can’t find another.”

She added that, based upon population growth projections calculated by the UMass Donohue Institute, Athol will need 340 more units by 2030.

“The median household income is about $55,000 right now, in 2020,” Robinson continued, “about 28 percent lower than in the county overall. Income over the past decade has also grown a little bit slower than the state and the county.”

Housing affordability is an ongoing issue, according to the study.

“About half of all renters in Athol are what we call ‘cost burdened,’ meaning that they’re paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

“Communities in Massachusetts generally are encouraged to have about 10 percent of their housing affordable to people who earn 80 percent of the area median income or less. In Athol, about 6 percent of the housing units are subsidized to offer affordability. So, you’re a little bit shy of that 10 percent goal.”

Robinson said demand for housing downtown “in the near term” is likely to come from older, less wealthy residents.

“What we’re going to see in demand for downtown,” she said, “is from seniors, some that may be downsizing from single-family homes and they want to go into maintenance-free homes, mostly of modest means; and low- to moderate-income singles and couples and maybe some families, maybe especially single-parent families.”

Robinson said there are a number of housing development opportunities downtown — vacant buildings and unoccupied upper floors in other structures — but there are several factors inhibiting investment in such projects.

First, she said, is that downtown lacks some of the features potential residents look for, including a variety of restaurants, outdoor enjoyment space or public green space, perception of safety, and convenient public transportation.

Achievable rent levels for apartments also are currently too low.

“That limits the amount of capital that building owners and developers are willing to invest,” she said. “We did an analysis looking at the average rent that you could get in Athol, and the average cost to operate an apartment building, and it looks like you could only invest about $61,000 per unit — that would be buying it and renovating it — to get a 10 percent return.

“What that means is it’s not going to attract a lot of investment right now.”

New construction would be even more cost-prohibitive.

The Downtown Vitality Committee and town officials as a whole wanted to get some idea of how to attract more residents to the downtown area as a means of reinvigorating the town’s traditional retail core, and the downtown housing study is a major part of that effort.

“You’ve given us a lot to think about,” committee Chair Mary Holfort told Robinson. “We have to look at this more closely and see what we can do.”

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