Smith College Supports Affordable Housing in Downtown Northampton
Smith College, founded in 1871 and now one of the largest women’s colleges in the country, is located just outside of downtown Northampton, Massachusetts. Smith is actively engaged in numerous projects to strengthen and encourage community development, including downtown revitalization. In 2005, Smith entered into a 30-year development agreement with the city to help fund affordable housing for low- and middle-income households. Under the agreement, Smith created an affordable housing fund to provide grants for local partners and developers. In 2016, Smith donated $100,000 from the fund to nonprofit affordable housing developer Valley Community Development Corporation (VCDC). Through a partnership with nonprofit developer Way Finders, VCDC used the donation to help finance the Lumber Yard, named after the property’s former use, to help revitalize the downtown. The mixed-use project adds 55 units of affordable housing and 5,400 square feet of commercial space along Pleasant Street, one of the city’s most important downtown gateways.
The Lumber Yard
Opened in May 2019, the Lumber Yard’s apartments were fully leased in just one month. Fourteen of the units have one bedroom, 34 have two bedrooms, and 7 have three bedrooms. All the apartments are affordable: 43 units are reserved for households earning up to 60 percent of the area median income (AMI), and 12 units are reserved for households earning at or below 30 percent of AMI. The Lumber Yard also includes six apartments with preference given to households coming out of and at risk of homelessness and seven units equipped for persons with hearing impairments, five of which are wheelchair accessible.
The first-floor commercial portion of the Lumber Yard offers three spaces, one of which is VCDC’s office, providing residents with easy access to VCDC’s homeownership and small business services. Another space will be occupied by MBL Housing and Development, an affordable housing consulting firm and affiliate of Way Finders, and as of July 2019, the third space was available for lease. All 3 commercial spaces will help bolster economic activity for the more than 100 shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues along Pleasant Street. Although the city did not oppose the development application for the Lumber Yard, several neighboring businesses expressed concern over the size of the development. VCDC came to a settlement agreement with one abutting business. After another neighbor appealed the architectural review board’s approval, the planning board confirmed that the development adhered to the city’s zoning code.
The executive director of VCDC, Joanne Campbell, noted that the city’s progressive attitude toward affordable housing and willingness to work with developers helped pave the way for the Lumber Yard. To increase funds for affordable housing, the city made use of the state Community Preservation Act (CPA), a tax designed to support affordable housing, open spaces, and historic preservation. CPA allows the city to create a fund that is financed through a surcharge of up to three percent on municipal real property taxes. Cities adopting the surcharge are eligible to receive matching disbursements from a state trust fund. According to Campbell, all of VCDC’s developments, including the Lumber Yard, have received funding through CPA. Smith College has also been an active partner with VCDC for many years, helping fund several affordable housing projects. Past donations include a $220,000 grant for an 8-unit building and a $550,000 grant for a 10-unit development.
Primary funding for the Lumber Yard’s $19 million development cost came from federal and state low-income housing tax credits (table 1). The remaining funds were granted through several state and local capital programs and Smith College’s affordable housing fund, as well as a loan through TD Bank. In addition, the Massachusetts Rental Vouchers Program provided project-based rental assistance for 12 apartments.
Table 1: Funding Sources for the Lumber Yard
|Low-income housing tax credits||$9,700,000|
|Low-income housing tax credits||3,000,000|
|Housing Stabilization Fund||1,000,000|
|Commercial Area Transit Node Housing program||1,000,000|
|Affordable Housing Trust Fund||1,000,000|
|Community Based Housing program||300,000|
|TD Bank permanent loan||2,500,000|
|Northampton Community Preservation Act funds||300,000|
|Northampton Community Development Block Grant||200,000|
|Smith College affordable housing fund||100,000|
Pleasant Street Revitalization
The Lumber Yard is part of a multiyear effort to revitalize the Pleasant Street corridor. The city intends to transform Pleasant Street, which was built to state highway standards, into a street that serves the needs of residents and businesses. Through city-conducted forums and focus groups on how to improve the corridor, residents expressed a desire for denser housing, more bike lanes and trees, and additional traffic calming measures. Using the community’s ideas, the city has planned infrastructure improvements that will include raised crosswalks, curb extensions, improved bicycle and pedestrian facilities, new onstreet parking, and landscaping, all requiring negotiation with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the city’s Department of Public Works.
The state also awarded Northampton a $2.5 million grant from the MassWorks Infrastructure program, which supports multifamily housing production and economic development. The city used the grant to relocate a stormwater conduit found underneath the Lumber Yard and make street improvements. Further revitalization efforts include a second mixed-use affordable development constructed by Way Finders that adds 70 affordable units and approximately 2,600 square feet of commercial space.
Smith’s Active Role in Northampton
Smith College's donation to the Lumber Yard was part of a larger $520,000 donation to civic and cultural organizations throughout the city. According to Laurie Fenlason, Smith’s vice president for public affairs and strategic initiatives, the college saw its investment in the Lumber Yard as an opportunity to enhance vibrancy and socioeconomic diversity in the city’s downtown, and Smith expects to continue to use its affordable housing fund to further these goals. Under the 2005 agreement, Smith will provide funding for new affordable units within walking distance of downtown Northampton if any college construction projects reduce the amount of affordable housing in the area. The agreement reflects former mayor Mary Clare Higgins’s priority of ensuring that low- and middle-income households are not priced out of the city. Currently, Smith does not have any specific plans for its affordable housing fund, but the college is in regular communication with local partners and the city to determine new investment opportunities.