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NBT Bank Donates $30,000 To Three South County Community Organizations

— The Berkshire Eagle

Thank you to NBT Bank!

“NBT Bank has donated a total of $30,000 to three South County organizations: The People’s Pantry and Construct Inc. of Great Barrington and Sheffield Food Assistance Program. Each organization received $10,000.

The donations were made as part of the bank’s commitment to maintain charitable support in the markets served by the former Salisbury Bank. Salisbury Bank merged into NBT in August.

“This incredibly generous donation from NBT will significantly impact our ability to address food insecurity in the community,” said Beth Moser, board president for The People’s Pantry.

“Our weekly program has been supplementing food budgets for residents in the Southern Berkshire School District for more than 35 years, and we can only do this with the generosity of community partners such as NBT Bank,” said Marcia Brolli from the Sheffield Food Assistance Program.

And Jane Ralph, executive director for Construct, Inc., said, “Construct is incredibly grateful for the recent gift and the long-term support we received from NBT and the former Salisbury Bank.”

Based in Norwich, N.Y., NBT Bank has been serving Berkshire County since 2011 with locations in Great Barrington, Lee, North Adams and Pittsfield. The merger of Salisbury into NBT Bank added a second location in downtown Great Barrington and offices in Sheffield and South Egremont.”

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Dateline Stockbridge: There Is No Panacea For Building Affordable Or Workforce Housing

— The Berkshire Eagle by Carole Owens

“Today, if we want affordable housing in Stockbridge, we need an Affordable Housing Trust, government subsidies, and a housing production plan.”Stockbridge always had mixed housing; it occurred organically. Houses were built one at a time, all over town. There was lower-priced, medium-priced, and luxury housing on Sergeant Street, South Main, Yale Hill, even around the lake. Yup, on Stockbridge Bowl, there were two-bed, one-bath bungalows with sleeping porches. They were small houses on postage-stamp lots.

Then folks came in, bought everything up, and tore it down. Modest housing, duplexes, salt boxes, and bungalows were renovated or replaced with hippopotami on picnic blankets. Just like that, our modest housing stock was gone and the rebuilds were priced out of reach of most of us. Today, if we want affordable housing in Stockbridge, we need an Affordable Housing Trust, government subsidies, and a housing production plan.

It is an artificial superimposition of housing onto community. Under whatever housing production plan, affordable housing will be built all at once, all alike, all in one spot. When built at the same time, a problem is built in: Age and deterioration occur at the same time. The problem at Pine Woods is an example. Major repairs and replacements of boilers, roofs, siding, appliances, roadbeds, and more occur simultaneously. It is a built-in problem, and a very expensive one.

Building in one spot creates instant homogeneity, separating folks from one another by finances. It could appear to be marginalization—being made less important and less powerful—through a socially-engineered process. Nonetheless, some argue that we must create housing in this way because the marketplace has—and will continue to—price all but the wealthiest out of Stockbridge.

Essential workers—firefighters, police officers, municipal workers, teachers, nurses, and more—will have to commute from other towns. Quick responses to emergencies, a sense of belonging and neighborly familiarity will all be more difficult for town workers to achieve. However, it is argued, it must be done, or young families with children, first-time buyers, will be priced out along with essential workers. So, if it must be done, what can be done?

Government agencies—federal and state—must subsidize housing. The terms (subsidized housing and affordable housing) are synonymous. The housing is affordable because it is subsidized. The costs of land and construction force up the sale prices of homes. The government subsidizes the purchase price and makes it affordable. When workforce housing is differentiated from middle-income housing by limiting it to essential workers, there might be subsidies and assistance.

That leaves the forgotten middle. At the upper end, no help is needed; at the lower end, help is available. Where is there help for those who do not earn enough to afford Stockbridge housing but earn too much to qualify for assistance? An Affordable Housing Trust and a Community Preservation Committee could help them, but where do they get the money to do it?

Inclusionary zoning (IZ) is a policy that requires or encourages private developers to build some units at prices below market value within a development of more expensive houses. In the alternative, the developer can pay a fixed amount per unit (from 10 to 30 percent) not to build affordable housing. In exchange, the developer receives incentives such as density bonuses (ability to build more units than would otherwise be allowed), faster permitting, reduced permitting fees, greater height allowances, reduced parking requirements, tax breaks, and other exemptions. The Affordable Housing Trust receives the money paid in lieu of building less expensive units. The Trust can use that money to help purchase homes when other sources are not available.

IZ creates more income diversity in a given neighborhood, and less government spending. On the other hand, “below market prices” does not always mean affordable to everyone who needs housing. A unit that is affordable to someone making 50 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) might not be affordable to a person making 30 percent AMI and might not meet the needs of a particular community. Also, IZ leverages the private market instead of public funding to increase the supply of affordable housing, and at the same time decreases the developer’s net profit—it may discourage building. Last and certainly not least, the government provides block grants for repairs. These grants and loans help folks pay for major repairs, such as a new roof. In so doing, these grants may help the family to remain in their home. The grants interrupt market forces: The family is not forced or tempted to sell, and so the home remains off market and modestly priced.

There are options for building affordable and workforce housing and even for helping the middle class, but none is a panacea. Each solution to social ills has side effects.

Gentrification is thought of as wealthier people moving to poorer neighborhoods and displace residents. It can also happen when housing production is planned for, say, workforce housing, thus displacing poorer households. Just because the goal is laudable does not mean there won’t be negative impacts.

Marginalization: All planned housing can create a bulk influx that marginalizes both the target householders and others. Many realize this and advocate for mixed housing being developed. And yet, all planned housing that creates a bulk influx marginalizes both the target householders and others. For example, as more children are introduced into public schools, there is a benefit in human and monetary resources. There is also a threshold at which those benefits turn into liabilities.

Finally, homelessness is the product of the housing market. As housing costs rise, more are displaced. As more land is built on, less land is available, and prices rise. It is unimportant if less land is available as a result of building luxury, work force, or affordable housing.

There are no perfect solutions. Flip the coin, make the choice, but look closer at both sides of that coin.

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Temporary Emergency Housing in Great Barrington

Thank you to Great Barrington!

At a Special Town Meeting in October, Great Barrington voters overwhelmingly approved a $92,400 appropriation to address the critical shortage of temporary emergency housing in South County. 

These Community Preservation Act funds will allow us to utilize a detached, four-bedroom home on our Windflower property as temporary housing for local families needing stability and supportive services for up to 14 days this winter. 

We are grateful for this funding!

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CHAPA’s Statement on the Housing Bond Bill

Citizens Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) applauds the Healey-Driscoll Administration for their historic proposal to invest $4 billion in affordable housing. The Affordable Homes Act is more than a housing plan; it is a statement of values.

Housing is the single best investment we can make for the future of Massachusetts. Governor Healey’s proposal builds on the new MBTA Communities Multifamily Zoning Law and the Housing Choice Act, to create affordable housing as communities put zoning in place for the 200,000 homes Massachusetts needs to stabilize home prices and rents. The Affordable Homes Act moves us forward in building 40,000 homes that are affordable for households with moderate incomes and 20,000 homes that are affordable for people with low and extremely low incomes. Creating homes for people across income levels will ensure that people, our communities, our economy, and our Commonwealth thrive.

The Affordable Homes Act proposes significant increases in funding for affordability, equity, and choice. This bill will create and preserve affordable and supportive housing; increase the supply of homeownership opportunities; invest in preservation, decarbonization, and redevelopment of public housing; increase accessibility for people with disabilities; expand housing diversity by allowing accessory dwelling units and investing in a social housing pilot program; expand tenant protections and long-term housing stability; enable communities to establish real estate transfer fees to fund affordable housing production, and make it easier for communities to require affordability as part of multifamily development. The Affordable Homes Act invests in our neighborhoods through support for community development corporations and financing the construction and renovation of early education centers that serve families with low incomes.

The Affordable Homes Act makes great strides towards a more equitable Massachusetts. Through the creation of the Office of Fair Housing, the state will support communities and state agencies to further fair housing so all communities are invested in and people have meaningful choices in where they live. Investments in CommonWealth Builder, MassDREAMS, and the creation of the Homeownership Production Tax Credit will increase the supply of homeownership opportunities and effectively narrow the racial homeownership gap by supporting people who have been kept out and left out of homeownership opportunities to achieve their homeownership goals.

The Affordable Homes Act will keep the state moving forward, building on the Commonwealth’s legacy of investing in affordable housing. New tools will expand the supply of deeply affordable homes so that shelters are a temporary place for people to be safe as they get the support they need to move into homes they can afford. By establishing a commission on senior housing and housing for people with extremely low incomes, creating a state housing plan, making receivership reforms, developing a seasonal designation for communities with tourism economies to meet their short and long-term housing needs, and creating a supportive housing pool fund to fund the services and coordination not funded through other sources, the Commonwealth will continue the work to develop policies and programs that will put Massachusetts on the path to a bright future where everyone can thrive.

CHAPA looks forward to working closely with members of the House and Senate as well as stakeholders from across the Commonwealth over the next several months to craft a final bill that will ensure that every Massachusetts has access to a safe, affordable home in the community they choose. We invite our members, partners, and affordable housing supporters to join us in advocacy to get the final bill across the finish line.

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One Stop For Growth Awards Announced

Congratulations to the Town of New Marlborough & Cassilis Farm 

The Healy-Driscoll Administration has just announced a $500,000 grant in support of the Cassilis Farm affordable housing project in New Marlborough. With this grant, Cassilis, a well-preserved, roughly 11,000 sq ft 1890s house will be converted into 11 units of affordable housing. The main house and connecting annex will be divided into 3 two-story units and 8 flats, ranging from 1 to 3 bedrooms. Funding will also be used for the installation of sprinkler systems, window replacement, and HVAC installation.

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As Winter Approaches And The Affordable Housing Crisis Continues…

Construct Inc. Looks For Support 

— The Berkshire Eagle / November 7, 2023 / Shaw Israel Izikson

Great Barrington — Residents from throughout Berkshire County attended the “Call to Action: Solution for Housing Crisis” event at Race Brook Lodge on Wednesday, October 25, organized by Construct Inc.

According to its website, the nonprofit organization was founded in 1969 and provides affordable housing and supportive services to 15 towns in Berkshire County.

In an interview with The Berkshire Edge, Construct Inc. Executive Director Jane Ralph said that, going into winter, organizations that provide housing aid to Berkshire residents need as much financial help as possible. “Virtually, everyone is out of funds right now,” Ralph said.

“…The homeless situation continues to grow,” Jane Ralph said. “Last winter, we did a survey that showed that the homeless population has doubled in Berkshire County. We’re seeing more seniors who are homeless, and more parents with children who are homeless. We started emergency family housing in Great Barrington at the former Windflower Inn, but it’s at maximum capacity. This year is definitely going to be a challenge.”

“We have an enormous number of families joining our affordable housing waitlist,” Construct Inc. Community Engagement and Communications Director Leigh Davis said. Davis is also the vice chair of the Great Barrington Selectboard and is the chair of the town’s Selectboard and Planning Board Housing Subcommittee. “Part of the reason why we are seeing an increase on our waitlist is due to rising rent prices. There’s a kind of connection between a lack of housing and increasing rental prices.”

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The Historic Affordable Homes Act

Largest housing investment in state history will create more than 40,000 new homes.

On October 18, 20213, the Healey-Driscoll Administration unveiled a $4 billion plan to jumpstart the production of homes and make housing more affordable across Massachusetts. The Affordable Homes Act, a comprehensive package of spending, policy and programmatic actions, represents the largest proposed investment in housing in the state’s history while simultaneously striking at the root causes of housing unaffordability and making progress on the state’s climate goals.

In Massachusetts, an infusion of new homes is needed to lower costs, accommodate population growth and achieve a healthy vacancy rate. In combination with the housing development tax credits that were part of the tax relief package signed into law by Governor Healey on October 4, the initiatives in this plan will fund or enable the creation of more than 40,000 homes that otherwise would not be built, including 22,000 new homes for low-income households and 12,000 new homes for middle-income households.

In addition, the Affordable Homes Act will preserve, rehabilitate or make resilience improvements to 12,000 homes for low-income households, support more than 11,000 moderate-income households, and fund accessibility improvements for 4,500 homes.  

“The cost of housing is the biggest challenge facing the people of Massachusetts. We said from day one of our administration that we were going to prioritize building more housing to make it more affordable across the state,” said Governor Healey. “The Affordable Homes Act delivers on this promise by unlocking $4 billion to support the production, preservation and rehabilitation of more than 65,000 homes statewide. It’s the largest housing investment in Massachusetts history. Together, we’re going to make our state a place where people can afford to move to and stay to build their future.”

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State of the County, 2023

Berkshire Benchmarks recently released a State of the County Update for 2023.

The report builds on their State of the County Report published in May 2022 and highlights notable changes in regional indicators over the past year. 

The purpose of the report is to highlight the region’s successes and challenges, providing a comprehensive overview of our region’s performance across eight sectors: Economy, Education, Environment, Government, Health, Housing, Social Environment, and Transportation.  

In 2023, housing and transportation costs as a percentage of income rose, with a significant increase in the population paying at least 45% of their income to these costs. The Berkshires also saw a significant increase in the number of second homes in the county. 

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Renters, Test Your Knowledge

from Connections, Summer 2023 newsletter

In the Berkshires, nearly 1 out of 2 renters and 1 out of 3 homeowners cannot afford their current housing costs leaving them at risk of eviction or foreclosure. Many households forego other basic needs to stay housed.

What is Affordable Housing?
Housing is considered “affordable” when associated costs are 30% or less of a household’s income. “Affordable Housing” is usually deed-restricted and reserved for income-eligible households. It is regulated and monitored to ensure compliance.

How is Eligibility Determined?
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) determines the area median income (AMI). This data is used to assess who is eligible for deed-restricted housing. Typically, households must earn 80% AMI or less. In most towns in the southern Berkshires, the 80% AMI for one person is $55,800; a 4-person household is $79,700.

What is Workforce Housing?
Workforce Housing is defined as housing affordable to households earning between 80% and 120% of AMI. It targets middle-income workers, including police officers, firefighters, teachers, and healthcare workers.

What is Section 8?
Section 8 is a federally-funded program that awards housing vouchers to very low-income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities to subsidize monthly housing costs. Tenants receiving a voucher generally pay 30-40% of their income towards housing, and a housing authority or other subsidizing agency covers the balance.

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Berkshire Housing and Food Insecurity Summit — Berkshire Edge, 9/25/23

Community organizations collaborate to fight affordable housing crisis and food insecurity

“I think that there’s a lot of folks in the Berkshires that are property rich, but cash poor,” State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli said in a blunt assessment towards the end of the Berkshire Housing and Food Summit on Friday, September 22 at Town Hall. “I would love to see more senior housing. That will open up purchasing or renovating opportunities for young people to buy their first home. [When it comes to the Berkshire County population] we are aging. We’re older, we’re sicker, and we’re poorer. That’s the Berkshires. That’s a fact of life. If you look at the healthcare system, 70 to 80 percent are on Medicaid or MassHealth reimbursements. That means we have a lower income standard in the Berkshires.”

The event, organized by Rep. Pignatelli, included leaders of Berkshire County community organizations to discuss issues and possible solutions to problems involving a lack of affordable housing and food insecurity in Berkshire County. The event was moderated by Jim Ayres, Principal Consultant for the Haydenville-based company Strategies for Collaborative Impact & Justice.

“This is a chance to pull together people from across Berkshire County to look at the challenges around housing insecurity and food insecurity, and particularly to do that with a focus on collaboration and new ideas,” Ayres told The Berkshire Edge in an interview before the event. “I don’t think the challenges are insurmountable, but these challenges are very difficult. That is why we need everyone working together, as opposed to working in separate silos. We all need to step up and do what we can.” Both Ayres and Rep. Pignatelli estimated that more than 100 representatives from Berkshire County organizations attended the event.

“The issues in Great Barrington are no different than issues in Dalton or North Adams,” Rep. Pignatelli said in an interview with The Berkshire Edge before the event. “But how can we work better together to solve those problems? The problem with the Berkshires is that, historically, we have a lot of overlap. There are duplicative efforts looking for the same dollar. If we could have more of a collaborative effort, we could solve these problems. I think teamwork is key, and convincing the state that this is not an urban versus rural conversation. We’re not here to recognize the problems, because we already know the problems. I want to leave here with plans to solve the problems, and I think some collaborative efforts in recognizing and acknowledging that this isn’t just unique to one particular community, I think is going to be paramount.”

At the beginning of the event, Ayres briefly went over the results from a survey sent to representatives from local organizations about the challenges Berkshire County is facing regarding housing and food insecurity problems. According to the survey, Ayres said, the top common problem relating to housing and food insecurity is that the wages of workers in Berkshire County are not meeting the cost of basic needs. “The amount people are making day to day simply isn’t enough to cover basic expenses,” Ayres said. “We all know that the amount isn’t even enough to cover rent, and the prices for the freshest food have skyrocketed. It’s difficult across the state, but here in Berkshire County, it’s particularly challenging.” The minimum wage for the state is $15 an hour, having been raised at the beginning of the new year from $14.25 an hour.

The event continued with a discussion concerning four potential areas of fighting the housing crisis and food insecurity: the renovation and maintenance of existing properties, providing more resources at food pantries and food banks, tenant advocacy, and the development of new affordable units.

When it came to renovating and maintaining affordable housing, Construct Inc. Housing Director June Wolfe brought up a state program where an abandoned property is identified, turned over to a receiver, and then sold. She said that, while the program has been effective for Construct Inc. to develop affordable housing, there are several problems with the program. “It’s very slow because it has to go through the court system,” Wolfe said. “Plus, in this real estate market, [investors] are jumping on everything, so the inventory is really low. And then for it to be part of the assessment housing inventory for that particular town, it has to go through an RFP [Request For Proposals] program, which is unbelievably slow and extremely onerous.”

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