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On affordable housing, a desperate plea from Great Barrington business owners

"As executive director of an employer, this is crisis-level," said RSYP's Ananda Timpane. "I hear rumblings from other nonprofits questioning whether or not they can stay in South County because they can't sustain a staff here."

Great Barrington — It seems that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a renewed emphasis on affordable housing in the Berkshires. Labor shortages, an economic side effect of the contagion, have been exacerbated by a lack of affordable and workforce housing in southern Berkshire County.

Various parties have been working for years to address the problem, but their efforts so far have not met the demand. That’s what brought a collection of affordable housing officials and business owners together Wednesday to discuss the subject virtually over coffee with Town Manager Mark Pruhenski.

Pruhenski had invited members of the Town’s recently-created Affordable Housing Trust Fund to discuss how they are addressing the situation, along with members of the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire (CDCSB), which has been developing affordable housing for several years.

See Edge video below of Wednesday’s Coffee with the Town Manager:

“Housing is clearly a hot topic here and just about everywhere else,” Prhuenski said, in what might be characterized as an understatement.

Bill Cooke. Photo provided

Former selectman Bill Cooke, a founding member of the housing trust, told attendees that at town meeting in 2007, Great Barrington voters approved the creation of an affordable housing trust fund but nothing ever came of it until 2015 when he was elected to the selectboard. The town then re-approved the trust in 2017.

The trust has helped home buyers with nearly $100,000 in down-payment assistance and, working with Construct Inc., dispensed a similar amount in rental assistance.

The trust’s crowning achievement thus far is the purchase of more than seven acres on North Plain Road just west of the Housatonic section of town. The goal is to build 20 homes that qualify as affordable. The developer is Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity in Pittsfield.

The trust purchased the 7.25-acre site, known informally as the Alden property, in July of 2020, using $185,000 awarded by the Great Barrington Community Preservation Committee and approved at town meeting the previous month.

The abandoned, now town-owned home at 40 Grove Street in Great Barrington. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The trust also plans to rehabilitate an abandoned home at 40 Grove Street. Work is slated to start in the spring, with occupancy expected by this time next year, Cooke said.

“It seems like everywhere you turn these days, people are talking about affordable housing,” added trust member Fred Clark. “There are letters to The Edge that have come up, and Ed and Pedro’s It’s Not That Simple. Everybody’s talking about housing. The Rotary’s talking about housing.”

Clark seemingly distilled the problem to its essence when he spoke of “a disconnect between what people can earn in a reasonable job and what they can afford for housing.”

Fred Clark. Photo courtesy BCLT

“We’re a victim of our own success in that we have a wonderful community and a great place to live,” Clark continued. “As happens in other kinds of vacation or destination places, that wonderful community is very attractive and has brought in increased visitors and permanent residents who have moved here and can pay a bit more.”

The two most common terms that come up are “affordable housing” and “workforce housing.” They are not the same. As defined by the state, affordable housing is targeted to — and considered affordable — by households that meet specific income eligibility levels, typically households earning below 80 percent of the area median income (AMI), which last year was in the neighborhood of $64,000 per year for a family of two, Clark said.

Workforce housing is typically for those earning closer to 100 percent of the AMI, though Town Planner Chris Rembold has said Great Barrington is at or near the 10-percent-affordable goal set by the state. Still, as the business and retail hub of South County, Great Barrington needs far more than its share.

forest springs Construct
Forest Springs mock-up. Image courtesy Construct

There are other organizations working to increase the affordable and workforce housing stocks in town, including the aforementioned CDCSB and Construct. CDCSB focuses on larger rental projects such as the recently completed Bentley Apartments and Windrush Commons, while Construct prefers smaller rental undertakings such as Forest Springs, and Habitat typically employs an ownership model.

“We have at this point … a fairly good formula,” said Jim Harwood, an architect who chairs the CDCSB board. “We have a system that works now for 40-50 unit developments that gets funded … and provides affordable housing within the income limits described earlier. But the next challenge for CDCSB is to figure out how to work the problem we are all describing now. Some of that solution is down-payment assistance.”

The town could use its authority and purchasing power to “bring preferred financing to a project” and “help eliminate risk,” Harwood said. Indeed, Ananda Timpane, who heads the Railroad Street Youth Project, urged town officials to consider establishing a fund that would allow the town to purchase existing dwellings and resell them at affordable prices.

Railroad Street Youth Project executive director Ananda Timpane. Photo provided

“As executive director of an employer, this is crisis-level,” Timpane said. “I can’t recruit staff. I have staff living in Poughkeepsie because they can’t live here, and I’m not going to be able to retain them.”

Cooke noted that the trust, unlike the town government itself, can purchase property on the market without going through a 30B process if they use only Community Preservation Act funds, as the trust did with North Plain Road. Chapter 30B is a state law governing contracting and procurement procedures for municipalities.

“If we could buy some existing multi-family homes in town, and convert those into workforce housing, we could make some headway that way,” Cooke said.

Downtown businessman Richard Stanley, who owns the Triplex Cinema, the Barrington House, and some property on Railroad Street, described “an extreme need for housing for employees who work in Great Barrington.”

Richard Stanley. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“So I urge you to think about championing affordable housing for employees specifically,” said Stanley.

Stanley, who live in Egremont, said things have gotten so bad that some well-established businesses such as The Old Mill restaurant and its owner Terry Moore have purchased a couple of homes to house some of the restaurant’s employees.

“Now that’s a successful business,” Stanley said. “It’s been around for a long time and they can afford it, but we have many businesses in Great Barrington that can’t afford it.”

Robin Helfand, who owns Robin’s Candy in the Stanley-owned Barrington House, later told The Edge she is in the process of securing a rental within walking distance of her store so that she can hire a full-time manager. “I’ve been on waiting lists since August for the right rental,” Helfand said. “I am not alone.”

Robin Helfand. Photo courtesy the Robin’s Candy website

“If we don’t come up with something different from what we’re doing right now, we really are tipping over the edge of anything sustainable,” Timpane said. “I hear rumblings from other nonprofits questioning whether or not they can stay in South County because they can’t sustain a staff here.”

“Our town is going to go down the drain if we can’t get and keep employees,” added Stanley. “I’m sure many have noticed businesses that have been open seven days or six days, are down to four to five days. We became aware that Theory Wellness … 70 percent of their workers live in Pittsfield, and that was even before COVID.”

The housing crunch has spawned a proposal from selectboard member Leigh Davis, along with a counterproposal from planning board member Jonathan Hankin, to significantly restrict Airbnb-style short-term rentals, which Davis says have diminished the long-term housing stock in the town and driven housing prices up.

Davis and her fellow selectboard members, especially Ed Abrahams, have been unable to agree on the particulars of the proposal, whether it would work, and whether it should be offered at town meeting as a standard town bylaw or as a zoning bylaw. Unlike a simple town bylaw, which could pass with more than 50 percent of the votes, any zoning bylaw would need a two-thirds majority. The selectboard meets again in regular session on Monday, Feb. 14.

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