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ACTON

Town tries new tack on housing

CPA funds would aid in condo sales

With cities and towns across Massachusetts under pressure to add housing, officials in Acton are touting a new program designed to create more affordable units without eating up open space and burdening the town's infrastructure with new development.

The program calls for using community preservation funds to help eligible homeowners buy existing condominiums, said Nancy Tavernier, chairwoman of the Acton Community Housing Corporation. "It's a way to reuse existing homes," she said. "It's in no way a substitute for adding new units, but it's another type of housing that will be available."

Communities are being pressed to add more housing, particularly homes affordable to low- and moderate-income residents. Those municipalities that do not have an affordable inventory of at least 10 percent are at risk of losing local control over new developments. Under the state's Chapter 40B law, developers can bypass local zoning regulations if they agree to set aside at least 25 percent of their planned units as affordable.

Tavernier said the condo program is one way the town can add to its affordable housing stock without relying on new construction. She said new construction tends to be single-family homes or town houses, which are best suited for large families.

This program will give smaller families an opportunity to purchase a home, she said.

"We like the idea of providing a diversity in housing opportunities," Tavernier said. "This is a way of trying out condos to see if people are interested."

Town officials have identified certain complexes in town that they think will be a good fit for the program. The next step is identifying condo owners interested in selling their homes and eligible buyers looking for an affordable home.

If sellers are interested, they would negotiate a sale price with the town based on current market conditions, and the town would calculate the affordable price. The buyer would pay the affordable price and the town would make up the difference so the seller would not lose money on the transaction.

For example, if the condo costs $200,000, the affordable price would be $110,000, Tavernier said. The buyer would pay $110,000 and the town would pay the balance using money raised through the Community Preservation Act. The CPA allows communities to apply a surcharge on property taxes to raise money each year for open space, housing, and historic preservation projects. Acton has $300,000 available for housing projects, Tavernier said.

As part of the buy-down program, a deed restriction is placed on the condo so it remains an affordable unit and the town is able to count it as part of its affordable housing stock, Tavernier said.

Though other communities have tried a similar concept, Acton is the first community to offer the program using community preservation funds, said Phil Hailer, a spokesman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

Hailer said communities are allowed to come up with their own ideas for adding affordable housing, though the plan is reviewed by state officials. Acton recently received approval for its plan, he said.

"We're always looking for communities to increase their supply of affordable housing, and this is one way to do this," Hailer said.

Boxborough offered a similar program in 2002, using funds from the town's general fund and in partnership with the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston.

Allen Murphy, a member of the Boxborough Housing Board, said the program was successful and the town hopes to offer it again. However, he said, there were delays working with the banks.

"The banks took forever getting the buyers approved, and the sellers were getting nervous, because the unit was off the market for a long time," Murphy said. "It was so new, the banks didn't really know what was involved."

But Murphy said town officials learned from their mistakes and are confident it will go more smoothly the second time around.

Tavernier said Acton has looked at how other towns have run the program and are willing to give it a try. She said the town is looking for residents interested in participating so the town can prepare a "ready buyer list."

"The first will be the test," Tavernier said. "If there is no interest, it won't work. If we get a good list of people, it will motivate us to keep going. We're on the cutting edge of this."

There are several eligibility requirements, including income limits. A family of three, for example, must not earn more than $59,950 or have assets exceeding $50,000.

Though a specific unit has not yet been chosen, Tavernier said it will be a two-bedroom condo at Briarbrook Village. Tavernier hopes to buy two units this year.

There will be a public information session at 7 p.m. Tursday in Town Hall.

Applications are available online and at Town Hall and Acton Memorial Library.

For an application and more information about the program, go to mcohousingservices.com. Sellers interested in working with the Acton Community Housing Corporation can contact the agency at achc@acton-ma.gov or 978-263-9611.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.

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