A ‘textbook’ housing solution: State housing chief lauds Northampton’s North Commons

Ed Augustus, the secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, listens as Julia Scannell, with The Community Builders, gives a tour of the North Commons mixed-income development at Village Hill in Northampton.

Ed Augustus, the secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, listens as Julia Scannell, with The Community Builders, gives a tour of the North Commons mixed-income development at Village Hill in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

 Ed Augustus, the secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, talks after a tour of the North Commons mixed-income development at Village Hill in Northampton.

Ed Augustus, the secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, talks after a tour of the North Commons mixed-income development at Village Hill in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra talks with Ed Augustus, the secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, after a tour of the North Commons mixed-income development at Village Hill in Northampton. Sitting on the left is Alexis Breiteneicher, executive director of Valley Community Development, and Carolyn Misch, director of Planning & Sustainability for the city of Northampton.

Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra talks with Ed Augustus, the secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, after a tour of the North Commons mixed-income development at Village Hill in Northampton. Sitting on the left is Alexis Breiteneicher, executive director of Valley Community Development, and Carolyn Misch, director of Planning & Sustainability for the city of Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

Ed Augustus, the secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, listens as Julia Scannell, senior project manager with The Community Builders, gives a tour of the North Commons mixed-income development at Village Hill in Northampton. To the right is Rachana Crowley, director of real estate development with The Community Builders.

Ed Augustus, the secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, listens as Julia Scannell, senior project manager with The Community Builders, gives a tour of the North Commons mixed-income development at Village Hill in Northampton. To the right is Rachana Crowley, director of real estate development with The Community Builders. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Ed Augustus, the secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, listens as Julia Scannell, senior project manager with The Community Builders, gives a tour of the North Commons mixed income development at Village Hill in Northampton. To the left is Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, right, Rachana Crowley, director of real estate development with The Community Builders.

Ed Augustus, the secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, listens as Julia Scannell, senior project manager with The Community Builders, gives a tour of the North Commons mixed income development at Village Hill in Northampton. To the left is Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, right, Rachana Crowley, director of real estate development with The Community Builders. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra listens as Ed Augustus, the secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, talks after they had gone on a tour of the North Commons mixed-income development at Village Hill in Northampton.

Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra listens as Ed Augustus, the secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, talks after they had gone on a tour of the North Commons mixed-income development at Village Hill in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

Ed Augustus, the secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, listens as Julia Scannell, senior project manager with The Community Builders, gives a tour of the North Commons mixed-income development at Village Hill in Northampton. To the right is Rachana Crowley, director of real estate development with The Community Builders.

Ed Augustus, the secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, listens as Julia Scannell, senior project manager with The Community Builders, gives a tour of the North Commons mixed-income development at Village Hill in Northampton. To the right is Rachana Crowley, director of real estate development with The Community Builders. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 03-25-2024 3:22 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Massachusetts Housing Secretary Ed Augustus toured the North Commons mixed-income development in Northampton’s Village Hill area on Monday, calling it a “textbook example” of how to build affordable housing units to tackle the state’s ongoing housing crisis.

Augustus, the former city manager of Worcester, visited the project alongside Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, city Planning & Sustainability Director Carolyn Misch and Valley CDC Executive Director Alexis Breiteneicher. Augustus later visited Amherst, where he spoke with housing authorities from across the state at UMass later in the day.

Although it’s widely acknowledged that the state has a major housing problem, several communities across the state have shown resistance to measures to increase housing, such as multifamily zoning changes required for Boston suburbs served by the MBTA services. Augustus said more education on housing issues is needed to overcome such apprehension.

“I hear people talk against building affordable housing, using so many false assumptions, maybe things that were true 30 years ago, and maybe were never true,” Augustus said.

Citing North Commons as an example, he said, “You’d have to have somebody tell you that this is affordable housing, right? Nobody would know it from walking through and feeling what the space is like. So I think everybody just needs to revisit that.”

The North Commons development was officially completed in 2022 on the site of the former Northampton State Hospital at 140 Olander Drive. It features 53 mixed-income housing units, alongside amenities such a playground and a laundry room. In keeping with the city’s goals of energy sustainability, the development is built to passive housing standards, meaning it relies on natural sunlight and insulation to reduce energy costs and consumption. The $19 million development was constructed by The Community Builders, which has worked on several such housing projects across the country.

Augustus praised the North Commons project as a model for how to address the state’s current housing crunch, with home and rental prices continuing to skyrocket and a shortage of the number of affordable units for sale or rent.

“I would say this is a textbook example of how to do it,” Augustus said. “Every project is going to be a little different depending on what you have to work with. But I think mixed-income is always a great model — it means healthier neighborhoods when you have different income levels living together. The design of these units doesn’t feel cookie-cutter, it feels like you’re in a well-defined neighborhood.”

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Augustus also was in Northampton to promote the Affordable Homes Act, a bill that would provide more than $4 billion to support affordable housing across the state. According to the state, the bill would enable the creation of 40,000 homes, as well as support more than 27,000 existing units in the commonwealth.

Though he praised the design of the North Commons development, Augustus acknowledged that such a project took more than a decade to come together, and that the state couldn’t afford to wait that long to resolve its current housing issues. He said the Affordable Homes Act includes provisions meant to address the time it takes to build such projects.

“The Affordable Housing Trust fund was doubled from $400 [million] to $800 million. That will allows us to say yes to more projects as opposed to having them wait for longer periods of time,” Augustus said, referring to the state trust that provides financing for housing developments. “As it relates to state property, right now it’s a cumbersome process. ... All that will be eliminated and streamlined under the Affordable Homes Act.”

Speaking with Augustus following the tour, Sciarra acknowledged that Northampton wasn’t immune from the state’s housing woes and needed more affordable places to live to attract new residents.

“We really need people to be able to move to Northampton and settle here,” Sciarra said. “If the city doesn’t bring young families in, it gets into a really difficult situation.”

Breiteneicher, whose Valley CDC worked with The Community Builders on the North Commons project, also noted that her organization, along with legislators including state Sen. Jo Comerford, are looking to rework portions of the Affordable Homes Act to be more inclusive of the needs of rural communities in western Massachusetts, including Northampton. This includes lowering the property cost threshold to levy real estate transfer fees to fund affordable housing, which currently is set at $1 million.

“There’s just so few homes sold in western Mass., exclusive of the Berkshires, that this would impact,” Breiteneicher said. “The thought behind [the levy] is incredible, but the practicality of how it can be reflected in our local communities isn’t functional.”

Augustus responded that the state was willing to work with legislators to adjust the bill to ensure it meets the region’s needs.

“We’re very open to making some changes to make sure it does work for all the communities in the state, including obviously in western Mass.,” he said.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.