The ‘horrendous numbers’ behind Great Barrington’s housing shortage

GREAT BARRINGTON — Over the past eight years, the City of Great Barrington and non-profit organizations within its borders have created over 100 rental housing units for the workforce, with more on the way. realization. Still, officials say the city still has miles to go and promises to keep going.

The city’s Strategic Sustainability and Liveability Committee met Wednesday with three associates about affordable housing: Jane Ralph, executive director of Construct, Inc.; Vivian Orlowski, president of the city’s agricultural commission; and Chris Rembold, the deputy town manager who also heads Great Barrington’s planning department.

There was a broad consensus among speakers and committee members that not only is there a lack of affordable housing, which everyone recognizes is at “crisis” level, but that the shortage has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and the city’s rush for available properties in a hot real estate market.

See the Edge video from last night’s meeting of the Strategic Sustainability and Habitability Committee:

Ralph said Construct has been providing affordable housing and support services in South Berkshire for over 50 years. Construct also offers transitional housing, emergency funds, rental assistance, and “microloans” that cover security deposits, fuel bills, utility bills, and other housing-related costs.

Jane Ralph. Photo courtesy of Construct.

“The pandemic has taken a situation that was already tight in affordable housing and for the workforce and has only exacerbated it all: economic challenges, sustainability not only for renters and people paying mortgages , but also for the owners,” said Ralph.

Ralph and others pointed to the latest market watch report from the Berkshire County Board of Realtors. The report indicates that the market in the first quarter of 2022 has slowed somewhat compared to the blistering pace of sales in 2021.

“It’s really amazing how many things have been sold: multifamily, single family, land, condominiums,” Ralph said. “It’s all really flying off the shelves.”

Sales slowed slightly from the first quarter of last year in southern and northern parts of Berkshire County, but continued to increase in central parts of the county, including Pittsfield and Dalton. Since 2016, first-quarter sales countywide have grown from more than $65 million to nearly $158 million this year.

Graphic courtesy of Berkshire County Board of Realtors

Rembold cited similar rising statistics in the town of Great Barrington. He called them “awful numbers”. To afford a $300,000 house, a family of four would need an income of about $90,000 a year. To live “pretty well”, the income should be around $140,000 a year.

“Needless to say, most of us don’t approach that,” Rebold said.

Chris Rembold in 2019. File photo: Terry Cowgill

In 2019, according to the Berkshire County Board of Realtors, the average sale price for a single-family home in Great Barrington was $411,000. The following year it jumped to almost $600,000 with no commensurate increase in income.

“So we’re already in the hole,” Rembold said. “In 2021, this gap has increased again. It got worse. It deepened. »

Orlowski, who has lived in Great Barrington for 32 years and has also served on the town’s master plan and economic development committees, explained how agriculture and food are linked to affordability.

She also highlighted the importance of Growing Better Great Barrington, a recently released report and action plan to strengthen the city’s local food system.

“Growing Better Great Barrington was based on community forums where many highlighted the impact of the housing crisis on those working in the food system – from farming to processing to retail,” said Orlowski. “With food prices and transport costs rising rapidly, it makes sense to grow more food locally. But how can we do that if the people who work in the food system can’t afford to live here? »

Viviane Orlowski. Screenshot

This has led to the inevitable question of precisely what the city has done to address the lack of affordable housing. Rembold said the city, through its Affordable Housing Trust, and the city’s nonprofit partners such as Construct and the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire (CDCSB) have added more than 100 new affordable units over the course of of recent years.

Construct and CDCSB partnered to add 11 units to Forest Springs in 2018. CDCSB had added 45 units to the recently completed Bentley Apartments at 100 Bridge Street and 10 affordable units to Hillside Avenue. The CDCSB recently opened Windrush Commons, which will contain 44 affordable housing units and four worker apartments on South Main Street.

The Great Barrington Affordable Housing Trust is partnering with Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity to build 20 affordable homes on North Plain Road near the Housatonic section of town. Construct will use part of the former Eagleton School property to create eight more affordable and labor-intensive units, which will be known as Eagle Cliff Apartments. And plans are underway for the CDCSB to create 30 new units, to be known as Berkshire Cottages, on the same site as the Bentley Apartments at 100 Bridge Street.

Bentley Apartments in Great Barrington, 2020. Photo courtesy of CDCSB

The Affordable Housing Trust and others have received funding from the city’s Community Preservation Committee. Last year alone, CPC awarded a record total of $1.1 million to eight organizations, including $200,000 to the Affordable Housing Trust, $50,000 to Construct for Eagle Cliff and $350,000 to CDCSB for the pre-development phase of Berkshire Cottages.

The two most common terms that come up in these discussions 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 less than 80% of the area median income (AMI ), which last year was about $64,000 a year for a family of two.

Labor housing is generally for those earning close to 100% of the AMI. Rembold said Great Barrington was close to the state’s 10% affordable target. Yet as South County’s business and retail hub, Great Barrington needs more than its fair share.

Rembold said there were restaurant workers in Great Barrington commuting from the Hudson Valley and Pioneer Valley – a phenomenon he called “not the basis of a workforce ‘work”.

“People should be able to live near where their kids go to school, near where they work,” Ralph said. “Communities thrive when people can live in the communities they work in, go to school, have access to the arts, and that includes vulnerable people and working families and individuals.”

Growing Better Great Barrington will be discussed on May 4 at the next Coffee with the Town Manager session. Click here for more information.

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