— 250 Strong Showed Up for Housing Justice in Western Massachusetts
On Friday May 12th, Leigh Davis, Construct’s Communications and Community Engagement Director, joined 250 Western Massachusetts community members to focus on ending homelessness and housing insecurity in our region.
The event, at Holyoke Community College, was attended by senators, representatives, legislators and mayors, as well as “dozens and dozens of Network partners who showed up to feel the power of our community and to demonstrate that we are building a housing justice movement that will make the change happen.”
Participants discussed the subject of homelessness in the region. They learned about real solutions to the issue and were inspired by all of the attendees “who know what it means to live and do this work for housing justice.”
Leigh Davis said, “Convening with so many like-minded partners in the housing justice movement and hearing words of commitment from many of our state and local officials was inspirational, deepening Construct’s role in housing advocacy and providing us with a critical seat at the table.”
Construct Appoints Leigh Davis to Communications and Community Engagement Director
Construct, South Berkshires’ leading affordable housing provider, is pleased to appoint Leigh Davis as Communications and Community Engagement Director. Davis has been instrumental in creating real, tangible change in the Southern Berkshires through her position as Construct’s Development Director as well as her broader advocacy for housing opportunity. She was instrumental in acquiring Windflower Inn as a more flexible workforce housing option, increasing Construct’s media presence, and ensuring the voices of those affected by housing insecurity are heard.
Davis says, “I am honored to be appointed Construct’s first Communications and Community Engagement Director. In my new role, I’ll be able to build on the tremendous momentum of the past few years. I’m excited to bring this work to the next level and look forward to leveraging my skills and experience to make a meaningful contribution.”
With her long and varied engagement with the community, Davis knows the area and its people very well. She has advocated for many of our underserved populations since moving to the Southern Berkshires from Ireland in 2009. Very active as a volunteer for many area organizations, Davis has also worked in marketing, journalism, housing development and local government roles for the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, The Berkshire Eagle, Eagle Mill Redevelopment and the Town of Great Barrington. With a background in film and television as a studio film editor in Los Angeles and a tenured film professor in Ireland, Davis has an innate storytelling ability. She communicates in a direct and compelling way that inspires people and enables change.
Construct’s Executive Director, Jane Ralph, says of the appointment and the newly created position, “These changes make sense and will make us a stronger, more cohesive organization. As a result of the need, as well as ‘A Housing Vision for the Berkshires’ and subsequent coalition development—as well as increased need—it’s important that South Berkshire voices are heard. Thanks to Leigh and to all our staff for their flexibility and willingness to jump in and make changes to better serve our community.”
Jane Ralph, executive director of Construct, spoke at the recent Distinguished Lecture series at Lenox Library focused on the “hidden people” of the Southern Berkshires.
— Berkshire Eagle, March 2, 2023
“The Hidden People of the Berkshires” are not deliberately hiding; they’re simply so busy scraping together their wages to pay for basic food and barely affordable housing, they can’t show up at meetings to plead to community leaders for relief.
On Sunday, about three dozen local residents gathered at the Lenox Library’s latest in its long-running Distinguished Lecture series. The event focused on those so-called “Hidden People” who remain mostly unseen, even though many work at vital service jobs around the county.
Jane Ralph, executive director of Construct, a southern Berkshires organization that provides emergency assistance, financial aid and affordable housing, explained the importance of making such problems, and the people suffering as a result, more visible.
“If you are not secure in your housing, if you are paying more than 30 percent of your income in rent, you probably don’t have the time to be any more visible than you are,” Ralph said. “To some degree, visibility is a privilege.”
Construct Launches Warm Up The Winter Fuel Crisis 2023 Campaign
Annual Winter Campaign Focuses on the High Fuel and Electricity Costs Impacting Berkshire Households
Construct will launch their annual Warm Up the Winter campaign on January 30, 2023. Focusing specifically on the issues Berkshire residents face during the winter months, the assistance campaign promises to help area residents—homeless, low income, and middle income Berkshire residents, including professionals—with the after-affects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Inflation, the deepening housing crisis and exponentially rising fuel costs are hitting everyone hard. Fuel costs, for example, have risen close to 250% in the past 3 years.
“Warm Up the Winter has become a core fundraiser for us,” stated Jane Ralph, Construct’s Executive Director. “Winter creates serious challenges for many Berkshire households. More and more people are looking at their bills and deciding between heat, medicine, and food, choices no one should ever have to make. This campaign directly assists households facing these choices.”
Originating fifteen years ago, The Warm Up the Winter campaign began as a benefit concert founded by Rabbi Deborah Zecher. This year, the Warm up the Winter Fuel Crisis 2023 campaign will include a six-week video fundraising campaign and end with a crowd-pleasing benefit concert at the Barn.
The goal is to raise $75,000 by March 15, 2023.
Discussing the current crisis from different perspectives, the short video interviews will feature local residents, business owners, workers and politicians: Josh Irwin (Cantina 229), Kate Coulehan (Construct), Pete Nugent (Sub Contractor), Paul Mark (State Senator), Cheryl Thomson (Program Manager for Advocacy for Access). Actor, singer, and Great Barrington resident, Lauren Ambrose, has recorded an appeal for the campaign’s opening video. She will also emcee the live concert along with Gary Happ of Barrington Brewery.
Underwriters for the campaign include the Gilson Family Foundation, Jewish Women’s Foundation, Theory Wellness, The Schnesel Family Fund, Judi and Alan Marash, and Eric and Laura Jordahl.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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…