let's fix our housing problem!
Updated: Mar 26
We've all heard about housing issues in Williamstown.
'There are too few rental units.'
'People that work here can't afford to live in Williamstown.'
'People turn down jobs due to a lack of suitable housing.'
'Houses just keep getting more and more expensive!'
What can be done?
First we need to really understand the issue. The Comprehensive Plan Envisioning Williamstown 2035, that is in the works, is helping us gather data and deal with facts. Its worth spending some time reading the Existing Conditions report.
Some key stats:
Williamstown population declined by 10% between 2000 and 2020, to 7271. It is predicted to increase in coming years.
Average family income is about $91,000, wealthier than surrounding Berkshire communities
28% of individuals/families earn less than 80% of Area Median Income (AMI), the cut off for subsidized housing.
About 10% of our housing stock is subsidized.
27% of families are housing cost burdened, meaning that they spend over 30% of their income on housing related costs.
About 1/3 of the housing stock was built before 1940 - more than 80 years old.
Second homes and short term rentals make up about 10% of the housing stock.
Zoning regulations in Williamstown have limited the types of housing that have been built over the past decades. In the residential part of town, single-family homes on large lots have been encouraged, through by-right zoning, while other types of housing have been discouraged. Restrictions have been placed on multi-family housing. For example, until very recently, it was not permissible to subdivide a single family family home into 2 units. Small multi family housing (3 and 4 units) require large lots (10,000 sq ft per unit) and a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.
These types of regulations stifle construction and use up valuable land with low density housing.
In the past couple of years we've been making some progress. Accessory dwelling units are now permissible by right, as are 2-family conversions. The state has relaxed voting thresholds related to housing density so a simple majority (50%) is required rather than a super majority (2/3) to change zoning laws at Town Meeting. The is that new zoning legislation is more easily adopted.
We have increased our stock of subsidized housing in Williamstown with projects at Cable Mills, 330 Cole and Habitat for Humanity.
It's a long slow process to change the housing infrastructure and forces outside of local control can make a big impact. We are seeing more people moving to Town as remote work becomes more widely adopted, the cost of construction and inflation make it nearly impossible to build a house that meets anyone's definition of affordable, good paying jobs seem to be disappearing, and income inequality increasing.
On the other hand there are a number of tools and strategies we can employ that fall into 3 categories: lower development cost and barriers; provide financial support; and increase income levels.
Lower development costs and barriers:
Change zoning rules to more easily allow a variety of housing types (small multi-units, smaller lots and frontages, more workable subdivision rules).
Change zoning rules to allow less expensive construction methods like manufactured housing.
Provide financial support:
Reduce the overall cost of housing through reducing property taxes for lower incomes.
Reduce the overall cost of housing through various exemptions - like veterans exemption, blind persons exemptions, seniors exemption.
Reduce the cost of housing through subsidized-housing programs (330 Cole type programs).
Raise monies for affordable housing through Community Preservation Act .
Raise monies for affordable housing through real estate transfer fee. .
Increase income levels:
Provide some rules for short term rentals so that our existing housing stock provides income and housing for locals and disincentivizes out-of-town investors
Support economic development initiatives that will increase jobs in the region
None of these actions will, on their own, solve our housing crunch. But taken together, thoughtfully, we can make some headway.