For the editor:
I moved to Great Barrington in 1973. There was already an affordable housing problem then. Over the past half-century, it has exploded into a full-fledged crisis of epic proportions.
A few years after moving to the area, I lost my teaching job. But my then wife and I loved the Berkshires so much we decided to stay here. As an educator, I knew I would never make a lot of money, which I didn’t care. My priorities were a wonderful community and a beautiful home for my family. I thought if we had an affordable house we would probably still be ok as it would serve as the Rock of Gibraltar.
We had very little money, but we were determined to buy or build a house. We were very lucky. A hard court became available in Alford for $6,000. We collected enough money to buy it, and a few years later, with the support and encouragement of the Great Barrington Savings Bank and a little help from the family, we were able to build a small but beautiful house out of logs.
Those days are over! Shamefully today no one in the South Berkshires who is not well secured can do what we were able to do. Real estate prices in the Great Barrington area have left ordinary people and hard workers, like us, in the dust. Not only has home ownership become a pipe dream, but so has affordable rent. It is not exaggerated! According to the 2020 Housing Study cited in Bill Shein’s first article, 43% of Great Barrington residents were “cost overburdened” or spent more than 30% of their income on housing expenses. This equates to a few thousand people being rushed or choking each month.
The result is undeniable and frightening. If you plan to live in or around Great Barrington today and you don’t have a mortgage or affordable rent yet, you better have plenty of cash.
Ian Rasch, the property developer featured in Bill’s series, thinks he can help the situation significantly. His plan is to include affordable rental housing in his current downtown redevelopment buildings and others he plans to buy in the future. The key, however, is strong public subsidies for affordable apartments. For without them they cannot be included.
Looking at Mr. Rasch’s vision for Great Barrington, there are five things to keep in mind. First, his top priority is to make as much money as possible for himself and his investors. Second, its biggest return will come in the form of high-end downtown rentals, as market research has shown that there is a growing demand for such apartments from affluent people, many of whom live in outside the region. Third, the buildings Mr. Rasch is interested in are old and very expensive to renovate. This is why public subsidies must be so substantial. He gives a hypothetical example: an affordable apartment costing $400,000 to build requires a subsidy of $200,000. Fourth, it is apparent from Bill’s interviews with Mr. Rasch that those with the lowest incomes will not be able to afford affordable housing. And fifth, the downtown affordable housing that Mr. Rasch envisions pales in comparison to the scale of the problem. He suggests that with the renovation of a cluster of downtown buildings, perhaps 40 affordable housing units could be created. And, again, chances are those who need it most will be left out.
Mr. Rasch is committed to renovating the city center because he sees it as an opportunity to make a lot of money. Remove that factor and it’s safe to say that his interest in affordable housing wouldn’t go beyond words.
I am not a housing specialist. Far from there! But I know of at least two affordable housing options that seem much better alternatives to Mr. Rasch’s plan. The first concerns revolutionary 3D printers. It’s amazing how quickly they can build a super cheap tiny house. ICON, an Austin, Texas-based company, uses technology to build homes for poor and low-income people both at home and abroad. The second alternative is a company called ZenniHome. She makes beautiful little prefab houses, with furniture included, for $75,000 to $100,000. It seems to me that 3D printers and ZenniHome can do a lot more for less than Mr. Rasch, that is if your first priority is affordable housing and not luxury downtown apartments!
But there is a hard truth to Great Barrington’s housing crisis that goes far beyond Mr Rasch. It is that in the current circumstances, there is no global solution. Nobody can solve the problem. Neither private developers, nor non-profit organizations, nor the city, nor the regional authorities, nor the Massachusetts, nor the federal government.
This is because the housing crisis is rooted in an economic system, American capitalism, which is not designed to provide affordable housing for everyone. It relies on the so-called free market, which is not free or fair (see Robert Reich’s books for a full analysis). In fact, the market is doing the opposite. It creates the very conditions that currently have so many local residents in a stranglehold. And they are not alone. You hear stories almost every day about communities across the country with the same problem.
Only a completely different economic system, based on the principle that all Americans make valuable contributions to the common good through their socially necessary labor, can solve the housing crisis that afflicts Great Barrington and so many other cities. Such a system would ensure that all basic human needs, including housing, would be met at truly affordable (not market) prices.
The workers of Great Barrington are the heart of the town. They build and maintain it and, through their daily activities, make it such a vibrant community. Everyone deserves an affordable home to buy or rent. Instead, a cold and indifferent market, which the people of Great Barrington did not create, has turned the dreams and aspirations of so many into bitter fruit. The real solution awaits another time and place.
In the meantime, I urge the people of Great Barrington to reject Mr Rasch’s plan for affordable housing linked to the development of luxury apartments. If he wants to further develop downtown into a light of the Hamptons, which many residents oppose, let him exclude affordable housing and pay all the costs (i.e. no subsidies) to him. -same. Public funds should be used entirely for the people who really need them and who are the backbone of the community, not for private developers who want to use them to fund their self-help projects.