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Panic Mode Hits as Heating Costs Rise

1,000 New Applicants Seek Fuel Assistance in the Berkshires — The Berkshire Eagle

PITTSFIELD — With the increase in utility prices and the general rate of inflation, more folks are seeking aid to pay for heat and power through the LIHEAP program administered in Berkshire County by the Berkshire Community Action Council.

As of Tuesday, 7,457 people had applied for the council’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, said Tammy Biagini, its director.

Of that number, 4,991 were eligible for assistance. The number of new applicants doubled from last year, coming in at 1,060, so far. And the pace of applications has been brisk, Biagini said.

“People are in panic mode,” she said. “They’re coming in like gangbusters.”

The deadline to apply for energy assistance is April 30.

The maximum benefit level, which applies to households at the poverty level, is $2,400. The poverty level for a household of one person is an annual income of $13,590.

For those with higher income, the benefit shrinks. According to the 2023 income guidelines, a household of four would qualify for LIHEAP with an income of $81,561 or less. A household of eight would qualify with an income of $112,554 or less.

LIHEAP will pay to help with natural gas heat, electric heat, and deliverable fuels such as heating oil, kerosene, propane, firewood, coal and wood pellets.

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Great Barrington: Mind(ing) the Gap

Chronogram Magazine — January 1, 2023

By Hannah Van Sickle

The purest form of democracy is alive and well in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Each May, taxpayers come together at Monument Mountain Regional High School—or the parking lot there, as has been the case this past few years—to convene in an open meeting and vote on the town warrant (a full listing, furnished in advance, of each agenda item up for discussion), right down to the last proposed penny to be spent from the town coffers. It’s a tradition spanning three centuries, one hinging on the right of every registered voter to attend, speak, and vote on the issues integral to the community at large. It’s a powerful means of understanding the townspeople’s commitment to their community.

“The people who live in Great Barrington are very involved in what goes on [here],” says Paul Joffe, adding, “and this has an effect on the town” where, in his estimation, people are friendly and polite. Joffe is the brains (and hands) behind the Flying Church and its eponymous coffee shop, which is adjacent to the building. The church was constructed in 1845 by the Methodists before Joffe renovated the venerable building as a mixed-use commercial space in 2014.

For a community where many full-time residents were already struggling to make ends meet, the pandemic created a crucible of sorts—as evidenced by an ongoing housing crisis and a shortage of service industry workers (a pair of chicken-and-egg problems). While uncertainty prevails, so does the collective spirit to press on. Together, many hands are making light(er) work, ensuring often-marginalized populations have the opportunity to thrive here alongside the restaurants, shops, and businesses valued visitors continue to crave.

Many Voices, One Vision

In a town boasting dozens of nonprofits, a handful remain committed to being inclusive of those who might not otherwise feel they fit….

“…I’ve come to see the good, the bad, and the ugly [in town],” Josh Irwin says. The owner of Cantina 229 in nearby New Marlborough and Mooncloud in Great Barrington has had a front-row seat to the growing gap between those who flock to the bucolic hills for fun and relaxation versus those who call the Berkshires home.

His most recent passion project, to create workforce housing, is a shining example. In what turned out to be a long and auspicious chain of events, Irwin’s idea—to purchase the 13-bedroom Windflower Inn, located in neighboring South Egremont, for service worker housing—was ultimately executed by Construct, the leading nonprofit provider of affordable housing and supportive services to residents of the southern Berkshires. The plan is to begin welcoming lodgers (via applications from employers) to the property, as soon as January.

“[This past year] was very difficult for many in our service area, and our waiting lists grew exponentially,” says Construct Development Director Leigh Davis, citing over 200 individuals currently awaiting housing. While Construct has grown over five decades to meet the needs of more than 600 families per year, it is not tackling the problem alone.

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Gilded Age Estate to Add 11 Apartments — The Berkshire Eagle

Construct, an affordable housing developer, has scooped up a Gilded Age estate at auction and plans to convert its mansion into 11 affordable and low-income apartments.

Two separate houses in mostly cosmetic disrepair on the 20-acre property also will be fixed up and rented to workers at affordable rates. One will be occupied by the end of the month by a local emergency medical technician who couldn’t afford to live close enough to go on ambulance calls.

“It’s exactly the need we were seeking to fill,” said Jane Ralph, executive director of Construct, Inc., of the EMT. “It’s also just a really transformative vision of what affordable housing is.” With the help of the town and the community, Construct bought the estate known as Cassilis Farm off Hartsville New Marlborough Road in August.

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Chamber gives Humanitarian Award to Construct Inc. — The Berkshire Edge

And to the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire

The Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce has named Construct Inc. and the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire as the recipients of its Humanitarian Award this year.

“Both organizations are very important because they have put hard work into developing affordable housing opportunities,” executive director Betsy Andrus said. “We want both organizations to know that we appreciate all of the hard work that they have done. They both have invested substantial time, money, and energy into their work. How would we survive without these organizations?”

“It takes a village to tackle the housing crisis, and we are honored to share this award with our valued community partners, the CDCSB,” organization Director of Development Leigh Davis wrote to The Berkshire Edge via email. “Without the backing of our supporters and the tireless work of our dedicated staff and board, Construct wouldn’t be able to do the critical work we do. As the need for affordable housing continues to grow, so do we as an organization. Construct commits to providing affordable housing to strengthen and diversify communities, stabilize lives, and empower individuals to build a better future is needed now more than ever.”

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Jane Ralph, Construct’s Executive Director, on WAMC

“Homeownership for middle income folks is largely out of range,” Ralph told WAMC. “Affordable housing is completely filled. We have very low vacancy in ours, I know the same is true for the other affordable housing options, and there’s not much else. So those folks who are in the middle We’re looking for just a nice rental unit can’t really find it. And so this is a really good alternative for those folks.”

Don’t miss Jane talking about the Windflower Inn acquisition with Josh Landes…

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Restaurateur Josh Irwin Wanted to Buy a Great Barrington Inn for Worker Housing. With Community Help, It Happened.

“One of Irwin’s visions will be realized this month when affordable housing nonprofit Construct Inc. stepped in to buy the Windflower Inn to convert it to shared temporary housing for workers. Construct sealed the deal on Thursday.

It was a long road. As Irwin and Firth searched for properties and land, Irwin spotted the 20-bedroom, 17-bath Windflower Inn on Zillow for about $1.7 million. He alone went for it, finding the price tag substantially less than building new.

He envisioned a co-living arrangement for workers either moving to town or already here and struggling to find any rental let alone one they can afford.Irwin went under contract for roughly $1.4 million, but a number of contingencies and financing roadblocks began to spike the deal in the spring.

“The people generous enough to invest in the project were being put through a number of ropes and whatnot,” Irwin said. “We met with every bank looking for the support but we didn’t have the institutional backing.”Enter Leigh Davis and Construct, her employer. Then add a sprinkle of serendipity.”

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Windflower: A New ‘Landing Zone’ For Great Barrington

Inn to be put to use for workforce housing

From The Berkshire Edge, December 1, 2022

“Another grand old Berkshire retreat has been acquired by those working to address South County’s dire lack of affordable housing. The 13-bedroom Windflower Inn, just north of South Egremont village, will be sold to Construct, Inc. on Thursday, December 1. The 13-thousand-square-foot inn is changing hands fully furnished and will serve as a temporary fix for those in between addresses or working seasonally. The housing support organization is paying $1,425,000 for the ten-acre property and hopes to begin welcoming lodgers as soon as January. (An additional free-standing, four-bedroom, two-bath house, and three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath cottage on the property are currently occupied.)

The new re-purposing of the Windflower started out as the brainchild of local restauranteur Josh Irwin, who has, by necessity, turned his attention lately to the problem of workforce housing. In 2015, he opened Cantina 229 in New Marlborough, followed, in 2019, by Moon Cloud on Railroad Street in Great Barrington. Within the past year, his wife Emily opened Home Love, a home goods shop, further down the street.

Not only has staffing these businesses become increasingly difficult, but Irwin’s entrepreneurial mind saw more opportunity everywhere. “I kept seeing ideas that in my head were like, ‘Yes, this would be good for our town! Oh my god, we do need a lunch spot. I could do something in Subway. Why is nobody using the flying church?’”

“Once his imagining turned practical, he always hit the same brick wall. Who would work there, and where would they live? The recent real estate boom and shift to short-term rentals has demolished the long-term rental stock in and around Great Barrington. There are only so many people willing to drive long distances for a service job.…”

“Here is where Construct, or, more specifically, Leigh Davis, Development Director at Construct and Great Barrington Select Board member, enters the story. She had visited The Windflower on the day of its inspection and had been tracking Irwin’s progress. In April, she was eating breakfast with Picheny at GB Eats, talking housing, when he mentioned that it looked like Josh was going to have to release the Inn. Davis. told me, “I was like, ‘What?’ I almost jumped from my seat. ‘Call him right now. Don’t let him release it,’ I said. Let me pitch this.” She ran into Irwin on Railroad Street and he agreed to hold off on releasing the property until Davis could get approval from Construct.”

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Community One Stop for Growth Awards $143 Million for Economic Development Projects

The Baker-Polito administration just announced all 337 Community One Stop for Growth awards, including the 101 Community Planning, Housing Choice, and Rural and Small Town awards being made through DHCD.

Governor Charlie Baker, Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, Undersecretary of Community Development Ashley Stolba and MassDevelopment President and CEO Dan Rivera were joined by state and local officials in Pittsfield to announce more than $143 million in grant awards to support 337 local economic development projects in 169 communities. 

Construct Inc. is pleased to be one of two organizations that were awarded a grant making funds available to produce affordable housing in the Southern Berkshires.

The grant awards were made through Community One Stop for Growth, a single application portal that provides a streamlined, collaborative review process of 12 state grant programs that fund economic development projects related to community capacity building, planning and zoning, site preparation, building construction and infrastructure. MassWorks is the largest program in the One Stop portfolio and is awarding $100 million in grant awards this year.

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Good News for Affordable Housing in the Berkshires

Early on in the project, Construct was proud to have been involved in writing the feasibility study for the new housing development.

Great Barrington has secured a $3.2 million MassWorks grant to pay for infrastructure work at a planned affordable housing development on North Plain Road in Housatonic.

The project, a collaboration between the town and Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, will include 19 affordable, energy efficient homes on a 7.25-acre site. The state funds will cover the costs of road construction, sewer, water and stormwater infrastructure.

The MassWorks Infrastructure Program is a competitive grant program that provides state funds to support and accelerate housing production and other economic development efforts.

Today, Governor Charlie Baker, Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, Undersecretary of Community Development Ashley Stolba and MassDevelopment President and CEO Dan Rivera were joined by state and local officials in Pittsfield today to announce a total of more than $143 million in grant awards to support 337 local economic development projects in 169 communities.

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Cassilis Farm: From Historic Mansion to Affordable Housing

Construct is pleased to announce our latest acquisition: the stately Cassilis Farm in New Marlborough.

“We are thrilled that we were able to acquire the property at a favorable price and that we are going to be able to bring thirteen affordable housing units to New Marlborough and still keep the historic nature of this historically important building,” said Construct Board Chair and New Marlborough resident, Elizabeth Rosenberg.

Read more about the lucky acquisition and our plans to bring much needed affordable housing to our community in the New Marlborough 5 Village News, on page 12 of the October 2022 edition.

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