Editors note: This article has been revised to clarify information concerning the source of funding for emergency rental assistance to tenants and landlords in Great Barrington.
Great Barrington — As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its unwelcome and deadly intrusion into our lives, the question of how to help those who have been displaced or are unable to fend for themselves rears its ugly head.
One organization that specializes in housing for those on the margins has, for example, found itself in an unusual position. Construct Inc., a 50-year-old nonprofit, has decided to form some partnerships that will help it survive the current economic downturn. Construct has 88 units of its own and would be faced with a revenue crisis if rental income dropped significantly or vanished.
First, it is obvious that during an economic disaster such as the one we are currently experiencing, housing becomes a critical problem, as many tenants and mortgagees who are unemployed cannot meet their monthly payments and are at risk for eviction or foreclosure. Consequently, many landlords lose revenue needed to maintain their properties or pay their taxes.
Gov. Charlie Baker moved last week to halt nonessential evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. And while there are newly created programs designed to provide some relief to renters and homeowners such as those offered by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, and others on the state and federal levels, local organizations and town governments have sprung into action to move much faster.
Construct has recently partnered with both the Lenox and Great Barrington affordable housing trust funds to provide emergency rental assistance to tenants and landlords in both towns who find themselves struggling financially during the COVID-19 crisis.
“There is so much uncertainty in the economy, and people are anxious about their own health, the health of their loved ones, and their financial stability,” said Marybeth Mitts, chair of the Lenox Affordable Housing Trust. “This takes at least one of those stressors off the list.”
Both housing trusts are allocating funds received from the local Community Preservation Act surcharge and granted to the trust in previous annual town meetings. Selectman Bill Cooke, who chairs the Great Barrington Affordable Housing Trust Fund, noted that last year, for example, taxpayers in Great Barrington agreed to allocate $100,000 from the town’s Community Preservation Committee to the trust’s down-payment assistance fund.
Those funds, however, are restricted. In order to use that money for anything else, the trust would have to go back to both the CPC and town meeting for approval. The money that the trust will be using for emergency rental assistance to tenants and landlords will come from $50,000 in unrestricted funds that was provided to the trust by the CPC and the town meeting vote in 2017.
“We have used about $10,000 of that for the down payment on the Alden property and had intended to use the remaining money from that pot for predevelopment on that project,” Cooke explained. “However, the board felt that, in light of the present crises, we should divert the rest of those unrestricted funds to rental assistance and apply for available grant money for any development work on the Alden property.”
“A lot of people are going be in trouble with their rents,” Cooke told The Edge. “Housing court is not in session, and evictions are just not happening. But it will be a terrible and tragic situation.”
In a statement announcing the initiative, Construct housing director June Wolfe said, “Housing is health care,” and that by helping residents stay in their homes and helping landlords make the income they need to keep the homes or apartments safe and habitable, “everybody wins.”
Jane Ralph, Construct’s executive director, added that the program will help sustain the local economy by “maintaining cash flow” and helping “mom-and-pop” landlords who may not have the same level of resources available to them alleviate pressure on their tenants.
“If you’ve lost your job or your hours have been cut, we’ll help with the resources we have,” said Courtney Kimball, Construct’s Project Home coordinator. “We’ll help our neighbors navigate all available supports and provide direct assistance as long as we can and the need exists. It’s what Construct has always done.”
Construct is working with other funding sources to provide similar rental assistance across southern Berkshire County. Applications will be accepted starting Wednesday, April 15, and apply to rent in May and subsequent months as needed and as resources allow.
Applications will be available on both town’s websites, as well as Construct’s website, in English and Spanish, starting Friday, April 10. Construct has interpretive services that can be deployed as needed.
To qualify, tenants need to make less than 100% of the area median income and be able to pay at least 35% of their monthly income for their rent. While the affordable housing trusts will provide funds, Construct will administer the program. Construct says this partnership also ensures that residents will get connected to existing resources as need is demonstrated.
In Great Barrington, this fund is in addition to the trust’s down payment assistance program which is available to homebuyers making up to 100% of the area median income.
In Lenox, the program is in addition to the first-time homebuyer grant program already administered by the trust, and which recently increased income limits for homebuyers making up to 100% of the area median income.
In addition to its relationship with the two town affordable housing trusts, Construct is also partnering with Race Brook Lodge in Sheffield and the Great Barrington-based Volunteers in Medicine Berkshires, a nonprofit and mostly volunteer organization that provides free health care to qualified individuals.
The three-way partnership will provide emergency housing and food for two groups of local residents who have been exposed to or have tested positive for COVID-19 and want to self-isolate to protect their families and loved ones.
VIM executive director Ilana Steinhauer said the program will accommodate front-line healthcare workers and first responders, along with VIM patients and Construct residents whose living arrangements prevent them from being able to be effectively quarantined.
Race Brook Lodge is a retreat destination with 30 rooms and the Stagecoach Tavern restaurant. Race Brook Lodge has been closed to the public since the middle of March, though the tavern is offering takeout orders.
“VIM, Construct and Race Brook Lodge are bringing their individual areas of expertise to the table to ensure these groups get the medical care, financial support and shelter they need to keep themselves and our community safe,” Steinhauer said.