Westhampton Woods: The Shape of Things to Come?

October 7th, 2014 by Don Bianchi


On a warm, sunny morning in late September, approximately 35 people gathered to celebrate the Open House for Westhampton Woods, Phase II, a 8-unit affordable housing development for seniors in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts. Sponsored by Hilltown CDC, the construction of the second phase is the culmination of a community effort that began in 2000 when local residents, organized through the Westhampton Congregational Church, approached Hilltown CDC for assistance. The success of Phase I, completed in 2005, led to development of this second phase, bringing the total number of homes on this lovely wooded site to 15.

The successful development of any affordable housing in Massachusetts is challenging. Land suitable for building can be hard to find, restrictive zoning laws can be a barrier, and sponsors must often queue up through several competitive funding rounds to access the subsidized funds required. The development of rural housing adds an additional layer of challenges and impediments, especially in a town like Westhampton, which has fewer than 2,000 residents. Municipalities typically have limited capacity, and few dollars to contribute. Rural areas lack the infrastructure (water, sewer, and roads), and the market rents in these areas tend to be lower. Rural projects tend to be smaller so that they can adhere to the rural character of the town in which they are located and because neither the community nor the market will support a large, dense development. While smaller projects can have some advantages (such as faster permitting and wood-frame construction) they lack certain economies of scale. More significantly, low income housing tax credits - the primary source of subsidizing affordable housing in MA- are simply not an available source for small projects.

Yet affordable housing is urgently needed in all communities in Massachusetts, including rural communities. Rural communities face a range of housing challenges from decreasing and aging populations, an aging housing stock and, in some regions, high demand pressures from second home buyers. Incomes in rural areas tend to be lower, exacerbated by limited or no access to public transportation and few employment opportunities, and rental housing in some communities is almost nonexistent.

MACDC has joined an effort initiated by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership (MHP), a quasi-public agency, to take on the challenges associated with rural housing in Massachusetts. MHP has brought together CDCs and other nonprofit organizations, State agencies, regional planning agencies, and local officials to identify and advocate for strategies to address these challenges. We expect recommendations to be forthcoming this fall, to the incoming Governor and to the MA Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

Despite the challenges, we gathered to celebrate Westhampton Woods. This was especially exciting for me, as I was the Housing Director at Hilltown CDC in 2000 when the residents approached the CDC and asked for help in developing senior housing. I can vividly recall those early meetings in the Church basement, where all we had was the “who” (local volunteers and a responsive CDC), the “what” (senior housing), and the “why” (seniors who could no longer maintain their homes had nowhere in town to go), but no idea of the how and the where and the when. On this bright September day almost 15 years later, at 13 Main Road in Westhampton, those questions were answered.

The challenge facing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts now is to provide a path to answering these questions for more rural residents. At the Westhampton Open House, DHCD Undersecretary Aaron Gornstein noted the importance of housing options for seniors, and pledged DHCD’s support for smaller-scale rental projects. Rita Farrell from MHP added that this was a model they would like to see replicated in many rural communities. When support from State agencies is combined with resident initiative and a capable nonprofit developer, our Commonwealth has the potential for many more celebrations like the one in Westhampton.

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