The Mayor's Roundtable Podcast

Housing With Community & Economic Development Director MJ Adams

January 01, 2023 City of Greenfield, Massachusetts Season 1 Episode 3
The Mayor's Roundtable Podcast
Housing With Community & Economic Development Director MJ Adams
Show Notes Transcript

A discussion of the City's efforts to create more affordable housing and assist the unhoused population, including the genesis of the Wilson's redevelopment project, plans for the shelter on Wells Street and accessory dwelling units. 

Episode also includes a Municipal Minute on serving on City boards and commissions.

(Intro Music)

MAYOR: Good morning everyone! It's 2023, so happy new year and welcome to the Mayor's Roundtable. Today, we have MJ Adams, our community and economic development director with us. I think, by and large, most people in Greenfield know that MJ does a lot around housing as part of the "community" piece of community and economic development director. But, in reality, the two do go hand in hand in many ways. So, we're going to talk about housing today. We have had in recent weeks good news on the housing front. MJ, I think we'll just get started. You can recap for us the Wilson's redevelopment into 65 rental units and Wells Street development-- both of which will add in the next few years, significant housing in downtown Greenfield across all income spectrums.

MJ ADAMS: Yes, thank you mayor. I'm so glad to be here with you this morning and I love talking about housing, as anybody knows me will attest to. I am so excited that we've finally been able to announce what is happening with the Wilson's redevelopment. It's been a longtime coming. We know that when Wilson's made the move that they were going to shut down the long-term of family store on Main Street, that that was gonna be a major consequence
for the life and the vibrancy of our downtown. It's clearly an anchor that's been there for a very long time, and a lot of community conversation about what its future might be and I think that we were extraordinarily blessed that the Greenfields market folks were already contemplating, you know, looking for an expansion in downtown Greenfield. We really appreciate the Greenfield market. It has made such a strong commitment to staying in our downtown because to have a downtown grocery store is critically important towards small cities. And, you know, we're looking at our small city here as really being a place that has a vibrant, robust, not just as a commercial and, and civic center, but also more and more, a living neighborhood in our downtown.

When Wilson's closed up or did they're going out of business sale and the co-op was looking to expand there, clearly, you know COVID came in and decided to sit with us for a little bit so that put a pause on everything, but we never lost sight that this was an important project to move forward. So, as things evolved, we knew that the building, the Wilson's building itself, was too big of a project for the co-op to take on by itself. So we started thinking about other partners that could come and play and play a larger role in the redevelopment of the building beyond the area that the co-op needed. And clearly there's been an ongoing and active conversation about the need for more housing in Greenfield. And, I hear all the time people wanting to move into downtown Greenfield, but not being able to find a place to do that. So it seemed that housing would be a good activity to see that we might be able to partner with the co-op on, and so we started to explore the opportunities there, talked with some of our local nonprofits here to see if there was any interest. It's a good-sized project. So we needed somebody who had some, some heft and we ended up approaching the Community Builders who expressed interest in it, came forward, and started to explore the feasibility, and we were very pleased that the project itself got the attention of MassDevelopment-- both because of the co-op's expansions desires and also the housing component, and so the project started to come together and negotiations started to happen and then we were able to announce in November that a deal had been sealed and MassDevelopment coming into hold the property and as the co-op and as the Community Builders finalized what their plans for the property will look like and and that's where we are right now. We're in a  really great position that we know that the co-op is hoping to close and start construction in 2023. The housing will take a little longer, but we know that we've got 65 new rental affordable units in the pipeline for Main Street, which is just a wonderful transformational project for downtown and most critically it means that that building doesn't sit empty and unknown, as we take a look at rolling out our downtown revitalization efforts over the next couple of years.

MAYOR: And that's correct. And with the Wells Street project, which is being handled by CSO clinical Support Options, 36 news studio units of supported housing. This is housing for folks on their journey out of homelessness, and they will be renovating and expanding their site for their shelter beds as well. So all around it's a great project that now puts us at about a hundred new units of housing across all income spectrums and across many needs for housing, which is great and I love that term you used "a living neighborhood right here in our downtown."

And we want to further support that through other additional upper-level residential. So do we have any plans in the works for that?--- that you're ready to explain to us.

MJ ADAMS: Funny you should ask.

MAYOR: Sometimes these things take a little longer than they should and can't really be talked about right out in the open.

MJ ADAMS: I am happy to say that, you know the conversation about what's happening with commercial space as companies sort of retune how they're working their operations causes us to think about what's happening in the upper-level of our commercial properties downtown and I've spoken with several property owners who have expressed some interest in taking a look at their upper-level commercial space that's underutilized at the moment and wondering whether or not that might be an opportunity to create some more residential units, you know smaller scale. I mean, it's not going to be a 35 unit. It's not going to be 65 unit development. But if we can, you know, work with the smaller property owners, you know looking at the upper levels and seeing some conversions from commercial space to residential space, which really serves you know a part of the market that's not being served right now. A couple years ago. We had some really nice upper level residential development that was governed some of the buildings around town, but that really cooled off and now we're looking to resuscitate it and have it happen again. So we are fortunate to be at the receiving end of some Massachusetts Housing Partnership technical assistance who will work with us. And also with the property owners to evaluate the feasibility and the cost and the process of doing that type of conversion. So we're about to launch on that and hopefully we'll see the the fruits of that labor just some with some plans moving along.

MAYOR: Great. That's that's really wonderful. Do you have, oh, I know you do, you have all listed other ways in which we've assisted housing here in Greenfield. What can you tell us what are some other interesting projects that we have been a part of or have done?

MJ ADAMS: Well clearly, I think one of the things that I've been working on for several years and it started to heat up more recently is what we do with those properties that have been sitting vacant banded and distressed, you know, intermittent single-family multifamily houses throughout the neighborhoods in Greenfield and it always makes me crazy that when we talk about new construction. New construction takes some time and it's also pretty costly but what do we do to take those houses that are currently not being used that are not being occupied and move them into what I call functional occupancy and we've been working with the Attorney General's office and the receivership program to identify those properties to get the Attorney General's office involved in sending communications to the property owners and the property owners are sometimes pretty hard to track down and pretty unresponsive. In fact when they get a letter from the City of Greenfield, they tend to be pretty unresponsive, but the letter from the Attorney General's office actually catches their attention and we've seen some successes where some of those properties have actually moved and then transferred to a new owner. I've got a couple that have been transferred a new owner contractor who fixes them up and I believe it's going they're going to go on the market but we still got a handful of them that we keep on plunging, you know pushing along on. So like I said, it's it's a quicker more cost-effective process to get an existing house back into occupancy rather than creating some new construction. Plus I mean the effects of having a vacant distressed abandoned house next door in your neighborhood really is a detriment and, you know, neighbors make comments about you know, how it can act as a slum or blighting effect on the neighborhood and people just want those properties back in use. They want them to be contributing to the neighborhood and not being a problem for the neighborhood.

MAYOR: That's right. It is preferable in many ways to new construction for our community for the simple reason that we don't have a lot of available land to do newly constructed houses on, so we do have to think of all of our options and certainly upper-story redevelopment of some of our commercial spaces is a great way to do it and taking houses that are either in receivership or, as you mentioned, are not being kept up properly and find a way to encourage the landowners to either pass those houses on to some other owners or participate in one of the programs that's available to them. So all in all it I think works out to be a win-win for increasing houses. It's not on a grand scale but on a more like one-by-one neighborhood-by-neighborhood scale and I think I've had you mentioned to me quite often a project on Washington Street you'd like to be working on perhaps in the very near future for 2023.

MJ ADAMS: Yes, the city of Greenfield several years ago took a pretty rough property on Washington Street that was in tax title and when the tax taking happened we went in and took a look at the building and the building was in such dire shape that it was decided that the best course of action would be demolition. So we did do we used Community Development block grants and some AGO funds-- Attorney General's office funds--- to do the demolition. So it is a city owned lot that formerly had a single family house on it. It's on Washington Street and we a couple years ago. We put out an RFP to see if anyone was interested in doing rental housing on it. We didn't have any takers at that point. So we are getting ready to put that out again this time broadening the scope of what you can do on that probably either, you know, if someone wants to try rental, that's fine, but it might be more appropriate for it to be a Home Ownership project. So we'll be putting that out for requests for proposal in the spring.

MAYOR: It's a ways off. It's only January.

MJ ADAMS: But, hopefully getting that into the hands of a nonprofit or you know housing organization that can do some good work and create some additional housing there.

MAYOR: That's great. Well, let's take a break and come back and talk about the future of housing in Greenfield.


MUNICIPAL MINUTE: One of the duties the Greenfield charter gives the mayor is to appoint members of municipal boards and commissions. Serving on one of these is a great way to get involved in your community and participate in municipal government. We have nearly 40 different municipal groups, from the Agricultural Commission to the Zoning Board of Appeals. The frequency of meetings, and the workload for these volunteer positions vary, but most meet about once a month.

To put your name forward for consideration, all you need to do is submit a letter of interest, via mail or email. You may wish to include a list of qualifications or resume, if your experience has a particular connection to the board’s work. Some have special requirements for certain members; for example the Board of Health needs at least one licensed health care professional, but many only require you to be a Greenfield resident.

Appointments by the Mayor are sent to the City Council. The council can reject the appointment, or affirm the Mayor’s choice.

The City website lists all of the boards and commissions, and which ones have vacancies. You can also inquire by emailing or calling 413-772-1560. Whether you volunteer, or simply attend public meetings, thank you for actively participating in your government!


MAYOR: We are back and I neglected to ask you in the first segment of this, before the break, to give us an update on the house on Conway Street that the Compost Collective will be occupying before too long. And and how did that come about and what stage are we at right now?

MJ ADAMS: So there was a foreclosed house on Conway Street that was acquired by the folks who are associated with the Compost Collective here in town. And the goal of that acquisition was the Compost Collective works very closely with people transitioning out of the House of Corrections back into the community and they run this wonderful apprentice program with the Compost Collective that offers these folks opportunities to you know, have employment and learn a new trade and to have some some minor source of income. And as they've been running this program, they recognize that sort of the most challenging barrier that they're folks faced was not so much doing the work of the apprenticeship, but was finding a stable affordable place to be able to live while they were apprentices. So the Compost Collective made the decision that they were going to move forward and try to acquire property and they have done that. Once we heard about it. We reached out to them. So because this seems like a very worthy housing project for the city to be supportive of so we were able to reach out to them and offered them assistance through our Community Development Block Grant Housing Rehabilitation program. And because the scope of the Reconstruction work on that property was pretty significant really larger than you would typically do with the housing rehab program from the block grant program. We also had some other funding resources called the gateway housing rehabilitation program and we were one of 11 communities across the state that got this supplemental fund to be able to do a higher level of rehabilitation in some homes. Because sometimes you go in with the block grant funds and it's just simply not enough to get over the hump to really do the work that needs to be done in the home. But the Gateway housing rehab program really gave you an extra sort of chunk of change to really do what you needed to do. So we were able to put those two funding programs together and are working with the Compost Collective and they're working diligently on restoring the house and hoping to have it ready for occupancy sometime in the spring of 2023.

But we're really pleased because that type of housing is so critical. We want people who are returning to the community to be able to have a safe successful pathway and clearly housing is the most critical need in that whole picture. So we're really pleased to partner with them.

MAYOR: That's great. Yes. I was fortunate enough to take a tour couple months ago and saw a lot of that work getting done over there, and I'm, I'm near there a lot whether I'm shopping at Foster's Market or taking what I call the back way over to BJ's or someplace else. I just love watching the progress that's being made on that particular house knowing what the good work of the program that's in there and is doing, and that they'll eventually have access to a really wonderful space for living.

So let's talk about the future of housing in Greenfield. I know I hear a lot and housing in Franklin County in general, but Greenfield being the hub, I guess. I hear from time to time that people do say. Well, I don't really think Greenfield is doing much about housing and of course, obviously, we've spent the better part of now, you know a half hour talking about what we have been doing about housing, but what's on what's on top for the future?

MJ ADAMS: I think what's on top for the future is there continues to be a need for housing. You know, there's a lot of things that in the pipeline, but I think I'm my focus. I'd like us to shift and to really start looking at more home ownership opportunities. You know, I think we've done you know, yeoman's work in terms of getting some new rental in the pipeline really happy about that, but it's really time to sort of shift gears a little and look at the Home Ownership piece and also, you know market rate. We haven't had a lot of houses constructed in Greenfield over the last couple of years. And you know, I think that it's time for us to really figure out what we can do to encourage and to welcome new housing construction clearly the price point and the the cost of land and the cost of construction and that, you know along with the increase in interest rates over the last couple of months have made it more challenging to build something that's relatively affordable or even, you know, what we call workforce housing or even middle market housing, but I really think that a community thrives when it has a broad range of housing options. I think we've done you know, we're doing our work on the lower and that the market can't really take care of on its own the upper end of the market tends to do okay on its own. It's that miss, what we call the missing middle, you know, that is above those those incomes for folks who are eligible for some sort of subsidy or support of their housing, but also, you know not so rich that they can afford a palace and that's what we're trying to find because I'm always amazed at what a strong, solid neighborhood we have specially just north of Main Street. There are a lot of homes north of Main Street. That's a huge neighborhood. And the interesting thing in Greenfield is we don't have neighborhoods. We have the city of Greenfield and everyone, you know, there's a, you know, Cheapside and Madison Circle, there's these little neighborhoods here and there but in the community where I live there's several different Villages or neighborhoods in the town and they each have their own sort of little distinction. Greenfield really seems to be a pretty Broad and include, you know, inclusive like one big small city right without that neighborhood distinction.

MAYOR: Well, that's mostly true.

MJ ADAMS: You live here. I don't

MAYOR: That's mostly true. I mean, I think the people over in the Four Corners area that call themselves Silver Acres or Silver Place or whatever off between Silver Street on either side of Silver Street going both to the north and to the South would say, hey, we're a neighborhood, and so forth and so on we live up by the hospital. That's definitely a neighborhood into its own as well. But you're right. The increase in housing, the increase in housing prices and rental prices Has probably depressed the market a little bit. I talked to my real estate friends from time to time and they say it's very difficult to list new houses right now because people are kind of where they are. They're not necessarily interested in putting their house on the market-- even though they could do. Well it's a matter of where do I go after that?

MJ ADAMS: That's exactly right.

MAYOR Where do I go? After that? If I want to stay in Greenfield

MJ ADAMS: Right. And I think that we're seeing you know, as people, you know live their life cycle and they, you know, the kids go off to school and move out of the home, you know, there's a number of folks who've said to me, you know, I'm in this huge house. It's way too big for me, but I really don't have any other place I can move to in Greenfield. So I think that that's what I've been hearing in terms of people saying boy, it'd be nice to have a nice little condo or a nice little home closer to the center of town. So I'd like to see how we might be able to accommodate that

MAYOR: Right. Well, and the Wilson's project is meant to take care of some of that, but certainly can't take care of all of it. When I was on the Planning Board, we created and did the Accessory Dwelling unit section of the zoning bylaw and that was just for that reason so that people who lived in bigger houses and wanted to make that house of there some portion of that house available as a rental unit so that they would have income as they grew older or as they could rent it out to a child that needed, you know, a child in the family a nice and nephew a daughter a son whatever, that needed some place to live or was having, you know, small children and needed in some extra space moving out of an apartment into maybe a two bedroom or something. So the ADU was meant to help that out significantly-- the ADU portion of the zoning by law.

It has not produced as many as we thought it would. I don't remember what the last number that planning director Twarag gave me, but I think since that went into place, we've probably got four to six of them. Maybe some of them in the works. So, you know a little bit here a little bit there does help

MJ ADAMS: And I think the accessory dwelling unit is a great opportunity. I mean like it for all the reasons that you said, you know that it gives any an extra dwelling unit. It could be a family member the other things that it does is what I like about it, is it creates what I call a soft density increase in neighborhoods, you know, you can add a unit here a unit here a unit here and there's they're usually small and incidental and frequently very little impact on the neighborhood or on the street that they're moving into because it's you know, it's one additional unit. And the other piece of that that I'm really interested in exploring is how might we get people to do this, and especially create some new handicap-accessible units I think, that you know to be able to convert a garage to an ADU that's handicap accessible. I think as we look at our aging population, and jus the handicap numbers in people who have Mobility impairments and challenges in Greenfield. It's a pretty significant piece of the population. So we're always having that conversation about what can we do to increase the number of accessible units in Greenfield.

MAYOR: You're right and I do know that's a problem. I've spoken to a couple of different people that I know well who have very great deal of difficulty finding a rental unit that is handicap accessible. Some of them are partially handicap accessible meaning it's easier to get into them than others. But nothing that was created necessarily specifically for that purpose. So that's definitely one of those unmet needs that we'll have to work on in the future.

MJ ADAMS: I love to find a way to do that. Yeah.

MAYOR: I was having an interesting conversation with members of the FRCOG executive board the other day and we got on to the subject of how to increase housing region-wide which I think is very important and I think it's on the list for FRCOG as one of their number one priorities for legislation around to get additional money and you know working on it housing on a more Regional basis, which I certainly support. Greenfield can't take it all. So some of the neighboring communities need to be encouraged in a variety of ways and I think they will but one member said, you know, it's difficult because if you're talking about one of the one of the town's up the trail, transportation is an issue. So working on housing region-wide is one thing but we also need to be working on the transportation end  of it on the region wide and that's why I'm glad we do have the Franklin Regional Council of governments or FRCOG as we all kind of know them by, right? They're the smart people who get to figure that one out.

MJ ADAMS: Well, this is not a new issue for them. They've they've been working on it for several years and I'm very pleased that one of the things that we've done it. Well, the fur Cog has a small town working group housing working group that they've shared for a couple of years and I'm really pleased because it is a regional conversation. We know that it's needs to be regional conversation. And yes, Greenfield happens to be blessed with, you know, relatively strong transit resources because we're the hub of the county. Yeah, but it doesn't mean that there aren't needs in other parts the community. And one of the projects that we're working with the Complete Neighborhoods program that I mentioned earlier about with Mass Housing Partnership is several other communities are actually participating in that because we've been having this regional conversation and are looking at where does transit where are the transit nodes? And how do we build up the housing around those transit nodes as best we can not only just because some people just have to rely on public transit. But also where we're going in terms of smart growth and trying to get people out of their cars and into public transit and on bicycles

MAYOR: Great. Great. Well with that, it sounds like it could be a rap on housing, so to speak.

Surely there's a pun in there somewhere. Anyway, you can find the Mayor's Roundtable on the city website or wherever you get your podcasts. Just want to say once again, Happy New Year to everyone and enjoy!

(Outro Music)