If Egremont voters approve it at a special town meeting Monday, Aug. 27, a small affordable housing complex will be built on land adjacent to Town Hall, pictured here on Egremont Plain Road. Photo courtesy Town of Egremont

Egremont to partner with Construct Inc. on affordable housing development

There will be two articles on the special town meeting warrant related to the affordable housing plan: one that would "create low and moderate income housing to be located on town property at 175 Egremont Plain Road"; and another that appropriates $640,000 for construction.

Egremont — If all goes according to plan, the town of Egremont will have its first affordable housing development approved by taxpayers at the end of this month.

On Monday, the Board of Selectmen took an historic step when it endorsed the concept of creating an affordable housing development on town-owned land behind Town Hall. The selectmen unanimously approved the concept for inclusion on the warrant of a special town meeting to be held later this month.

Egremont Board of Selectmen Chairman Bruce Turner. Photo: David Scribner

“We think it’s an opportunity for the town to develop some affordable housing relatively quickly and cost effectively,” Bruce Turner, who chairs the board of selectmen, told The Edge. “And in the long run, we’re confident we will get our money back.”

There will be two articles on the warrant related to the affordable housing plan: one that would “create low and moderate income housing to be located on town property at 175 Egremont Plain Road”; and another that appropriates $640,000 for construction. That request to taxpayers “is likely to be a borrowing authorization.”

Here’s the back story: About six weeks ago, Construct Inc., a regional housing and workforce development organization in Great Barrington, approached the town with an idea. Construct had an offer from a developer for two houses that could be moved from Great Barrington.

The developer, Ian Rasch of Framework Properties, is proposing a mixed-use rental complex on Manville Street in Great Barrington. Click here to read an Edge story on what Rasch is calling “Manville Place.” In order to make the development a reality, he will need to remove homes on the street.

“He offered us the houses if we were able to use them,” said Jane Ralph, who heads Construct. “They could be developed into duplexes.”

A home and a vacant lot at the end of Manville Street in Great Barrington. Two homes will be moved to Egremont and one other will be demolished as part of the Manville Place project. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The homes at 26 and 28 Manville St. are in good shape, so Rasch suggested donating them for affordable housing and moving them elsewhere. Enter Construct, which recently made a presentation to the selectmen about siting the units on roughly 33 acres, some classified as wetlands, surrounding Town Hall in the North Egremont part of town. The hitch is that Framework needs the homes to be removed by November, when it expects to proceed with construction of Manville Place. That explains the rush for the special town meeting.

The idea is that sale or rental income from the units will allow the town to recoup its investment. The expense would largely be in constructing foundations for the homes, moving them about 4 miles from Great Barrington and converting them to duplexes for four units of affordable housing. The selectmen toured the Egremont site and embraced the concept.

In an interview, Selectman George McGurn said he supports the Egremont project. “We don’t have any affordable housing,” he said. “It’s a critical need.”

Construct says the land surrounding Town Hall, which also includes the highway garage and the transfer station, was originally set aside for affordable housing in 1989. Turner said town officials talked about partnering with another group on affordable housing on the site about seven years ago, but nothing came of it.

Egremont Selectman George McGurn.

McGurn also emphasized that it’s to the town’s advantage to avail itself of this current opportunity. Otherwise, a developer with a bad idea could come into Egremont and propose a project under under Chapter 40b, a state law that streamlines the approval process and waives most of the zoning requirements for the construction of affordable housing.

“It was a wake-up call,” McGurn said of his experience learning of 40b. “We could be vulnerable to a developer.”

In a PowerPoint presentation to the selectmen, Construct’s June Wolfe called the project a “quick, inexpensive opportunity to initiate affordable housing in Egremont.” Under 40b, the state has set a goal of at least 10 percent affordable housing for municipalities. Egremont currently has zero percent. 

Town officials say approval by voters Monday, Aug. 27, is crucial if Construct is to move ahead with the project. Asked what he thought the chances were of the proposal passing muster with voters at town meeting, Turner replied, “I’m optimistic.”

Police and teachers, for example, don’t make a ton of money,” said Turner, the former business administrator for the Southern Berkshire Regional School District. “If we could provide some place for them to reside, it would be good for the vitality of the community to have more younger people here … We need volunteer firefighters and people to sit on committees.”

In this aerial shot, almost 33 acres are boxed off in yellow. If Egremont voters approve, this property, located at 175 Egremont Plain Road behind Egremont Town Hall, will be used for affordable housing. Image courtesy Town of Egremont

In an interview, Rasch said Framework will need to remove three homes on Manville Street for his project in Great Barrington. The company will donate the homes at 26 and 28 Manville St. to Construct. The third home is made of brick and is almost impossible to move. That home will be demolished, though much of its contents will be donated to another charity.

In an interview, Rasch said he worked previously as the owner’s representative for Construct at Forest Springs, Construct’s 11-unit low-to-moderate-income rental complex on State Road in Great Barrington.

“We understand the need for affordable housing,” said Rasch, who also developed the 47 Railroad Street mixed-use market-rate complex in Great Barrington. “It made a lot of sense to put them somewhere else and it’s the community-minded thing to do.”

Rasch and his business partner, Sam Nickerson, are intimately acquainted with the lack of rental units in Berkshire County. Click here to read about what they see as a “crisis” in the rental market in Great Barrington. 

The lack of affordable housing is also a regional problem. In Berkshire County alone, 45 percent of renter households and 37 percent of owner households are living in homes considered unaffordable, which is defined as households paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

Berkshire County is known for having high housing costs with low wages in a service-based economy that caters to part-time residents, hospitality and tourism. Click here to see an eye-opening summary of that predicament from the nonprofit Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire, which served as development consultant for Construct in the Forest Springs project.

The special town meeting will be held Monday, Aug. 27, at 7 p.m. in the North Egremont firehouse. Town office administrator and selectman Mary Brazie told The Edge the warrant should be ready on Monday. Click here to view the notice.