Forum looks at affordable housing solutions in Athol

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 05-31-2023 3:05 PM

ATHOL – There isn’t enough affordable housing in Athol.

That was the message conveyed at a community housing forum held Tuesday evening at Athol Public Library, and local officials hope it’s the first step toward solving the problem.

“Some of you may have heard about what’s called Mass General Law Chapter 40B,” said Athol Planning and Development Director Eric Smith in opening the meeting. “That’s Massachusetts’ affordable housing law. This (forum) is a way to be proactive with housing versus being reactive.”

Chapter 40B directs all 351 communities in the Commonwealth to ensure that at least 10 percent of their housing stock falls under the category of affordable housing. It also, however, provides what’s known as “safe harbor” to cities and towns that fall below the 10 percent threshold – which applies to Athol – if they can demonstrate progress toward meeting minimum annual housing growth targets.

Karen Sunnarborg of Karen Sunnaborg Consulting provided attendees with an overview of a draft housing needs assessment undertaken by her company. The assessment, she explained, is the first major required component of a housing production plan.

The assessment looks at identifying demographic, economic, and housing characteristics and trends and better understanding the current housing market dynamic. Housing production plans, she said, have a life of only five years before they expire.

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“That provides the context for really addressing the identified needs through specific strategies,” she said. “Those strategies are to address the identified needs and the goals, and to lay a road map for housing initiatives over the next five years.”

Sunnaborg then explained the steps Athol and similar communities must take to demonstrate movement toward the 10 percent goal.

“If you prepare a housing production plan that meets all of the state’s requirements,” she said, “and then you produce one half percent of your year-round housing stock in a year – and that’s the equivalent of 26 state-defined affordable units for Athol – then you get certified, or you get to ‘safe harbor.’”

Under “safe harbor”’ she explained, if a developer wants to make a proposal which overrides zoning and meets state requirements, but the town doesn’t like what they’re proposing, it can deny the application. So, surpassing the 10 percent gives the town the ability to deny inappropriate 40B applications.

Sunnaborg said there were several definitions of affordable housing.

“The federal government and the state government basically embrace the definition that when a household is spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, it’s defined as spending too much – or having cost burdens,” she said. “In effect, they’re not living in housing that’s affordable to them.”

Sunnaborg added that affordable housing has to be available to households with income at or below 80 percent of the area mean income. For Athol, that area is Western Worcester County. She said that for a household of three, median income would be $74,450, well beyond the $58,275 median household income in Athol as of 2021.

Sunnaborg explained that Athol currently has 5,257 year-round housing units. Of that, 261 are included in the subsidized housing inventory, or 4.96 percent of the total – halfway toward meeting the goal of 10 percent affordability. Another 100 units, she said, are “in the pipeline,” which when complete, will push the total to a 7 percent affordability level.

The consultant then pinpointed some of the housing needs for the community, noting that rental housing will continue to be a priority to meet the needs of families and seniors, as well as the community’s most vulnerable residents. Currently, she said, the town has a vacancy rate of zero. The housing stock, as a result, needs to be diversified.

David Eisen of Abacus Architects & Planners identified several locations in Athol that appear suitable for construction of apartments, duplexes or triplexes, assisted living facilities, and other types of cluster housing. These sites included parcels of land on Canal, South, and Main streets, the Bidwell property off South Athol Road, and the site of the former Silver Lake School.

Results of the breakout groups’ discussions will be compiled and assessed by Sunnaborg and included in a draft housing production plan. That draft will be presented in another public forum scheduled for Sept. 20 at Athol Public Library.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.

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