City looks to establish market-Rate housing

WESTFIELD – While the majority of visitors to Westfield Vocational-Technical High School Tuesday were there to cast their vote for either Ed Markey or Gabriel Gomez to represent Massachusetts for the next 496 days, a small group gathered for another reason – to discuss the potential future for new housing opportunities in and around the city’s downtown district.
The meeting was attended by City Development Director Peter Miller and Principal City Planner Jay Vinskey, as well as members of the newly formed Downtown Housing Advisory Committee, who heard from Jayne Armington, a housing, economic development and scenic byway planner for the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, or PVPC.
Armington, a resident of Sturbridge, is no stranger to the Westfield area, having worked with the city on its recent downtown and open space recreation plans and on projects in Russell last year.
The meeting served as the kickoff for the city’s plan for creating market-rate housing as part of its Re-Thinking Downtown Westfield plan.
“Market-rate housing is a funny term,” Armington said at the start of the meeting.
In layman’s terms, market-rate housing can be defined as housing that places little to no restriction on rental amounts, giving landlords the freedom to rent the space at whatever price they feel their local market can accommodate.
“We need to define areas within the city as target markets,” said Vinskey after the meeting. “Based on the median income for those areas, the market rate of the housing can then be established.”
Vinskey would then go on to explain the complex regulations of the state’s Housing Development Incentive Program (HDIP.)
“Under the HDIP, residential units must be priced within 110 percent of the median income of the target area,” he said. “So if the median income in one of our target areas is $40,000, then a person would likely need to make about $45,000 to be able to afford to live in the market-rate housing of that area.”
“It’s done in an effort to bring a different income bracket to the area,” Miller said.
“We’re basically looking to foster an environment of mixed-income housing in the downtown district,” added Armington.
According to Vinskey, the hope is that by bringing in residents belonging to higher tax brackets to the city’s general downtown area, they will then conduct business downtown, thus generating more business, and effectively revitalizing that area.
Two maps distributed to those in attendance outlined proposed barriers of development surrounding the city’s downtown, running from the southern end of Elm Street north to the Depot Square district just over the Westfield River.
The committee is looking to focus the majority of development of the prospective market rate housing along Elm Street, traditionally a downtown hub of commercial activity for the city, as well as revitalizing the Gaslight District along Washington Street.
“The Washington Street area is very walkable, which would make it great for market-rate housing, and there are also some strategic parcels we’re going to try to catch in the Union Street area, as well,” Miller said.
The project is still in it’s infancy, as there are three more meetings scheduled, the next of which will be held in mid-August, and two public presentations to showcase the committee’s findings will be held before the year’s end.
According to a document issued on April 10, the city is set to receive a District Local Technical Assistance (DLTA) grant of $8,000, which will be matched in kind by the city to the tune of $400, which will be used by the new committee to plan and organize the meetings and presentations for the project.
Several tasks will need to be accomplished before the project can get off the ground, tasks which will use the said DLTA funds, according to Armington.
The first will be a $3,000 market rate housing assessment of downtown Westfield, which this meeting essentially served as a planning session for, which will include an inventory of rent and sales prices, vacancy and absorption rates, and changes over time in owner versus renter occupied units. Task one will also include interviewing possible stakeholders about their properties that have been deemed desirable by the city.
Miller also believes that the city’s status as a Gateway City provides additional incentive and opportunity for Westfield.  The Gateway Cities program is designed to aid older industrial cities with redevelopment and new economic investment.
According to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Housing Development Incentive Program, there are a select number of cities which are able to offer tax incentives to people who are committed to developing market rate housing which any newcomer to that city can move into.
According to the state’s criteria, to be eligible for HDIP participation, a city must be designated by the state as a Gateway municipality, have a population between 35,000 and 250,000 people, a median household income that is below the state average, and a rate of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher that is also below the state average.
There are currently 24 municipalities in Massachusetts that fit the mold for the HDIP, including Chicopee, Holyoke and Springfield, in addition to Westfield, in Hampden County.
The second task will be to create the Market Rate strategy itself, an action plan that will be drawn up to the tune of $3,500.
This plan will include steps and timeframes for the carrying out of the project. The strategy will draw on the task one assessment, as well as stakeholder input.
According to Armington, the strategy may include proposing district improvement and tax increment financing and establishing a private investment fund through foundations and corporate contributions.
The final task will be drafting the document for the plan itself, which will be done by the PVPC for the remaining $1,500 of the DLTA grant.
Potential concerns are abundant. The project would include the displacement of current tenants in the Arnold Street area, most notably the Flahive Building, which houses a branch of the Salvation Army and several other small businesses, as well as 19 apartments, the rents of which are currently market rate, and range from $600 to $800 a month, according to Miller.
The building is part of the city’s urban renewal plan, and is located right next to the proposed location for an intermodal transportation center.
Miller is unsure how the acquisition of that building will go.
“It could be by eminent domain. It could be a friendly taking. It could be a friendly eminent domain. There are such things,” Miller said.
Another potential issue could be related to the acquisition of the desired properties running from Route 20/Elm Street to the Washington Street area, as well as several small parcels in the Mechanic Street section, which Miller believes could be a snake pit for the project.
“There’s code issues. It’s overcrowded. Parking is going to be a big problem,” Miller said of the Mechanic Street Neighborhood. “It’s a college ghetto, for the most part.”
It is the large student population from Westfield State University residing off-campus that is effectively throwing a monkey wrench into the current housing market within the city.
“Most of the inventory in these neighborhoods are two or three family houses which are occupied by students,” Miller said. “For a professional starting out, who is one of the primary targets for downtown and urban living, the false cushion the college population has put into the market is a big challenge. If a landlord is able to get five kids in a house and charge each $400 a month, that makes for a stiffer, more challenging housing market.”
Miller also estimates that there are nearly 100 multi-family homes being rented to Westfield State University students within the targeted core area for this project.
Despite these concerns, the plan to re-invent and re-think downtown Westfield through the establishment of market rate housing is well underway, with the next step being an August 13 meeting.
“It was a good meeting (Tuesday evening), and we’re looking forward to working with the PVPC during the next six months,” Miller said.

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