Berkshire Trade & Commerce — May, 2021

Great Barrington

Central Berkshire Habitat expands southward with 20-unit development

Project to be developed in stages over several years

 By John Townes      

        

AT A TIME when the need for affordable housing has become increasingly critical in the Berkshires, Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity has expanded its geographic focus with a new project in Great Barrington.

      In January, the Great Barrington Affordable Housing Trust Fund approved Habitat as the designated developer of a new mixed-income, clustered neighborhood of 14-20 houses in up to 16 structures on a 7.5 acre site off North Plain Road (Route 41) in the village of Housatonic.

      Habitat’s was the only proposal that had been submitted for the project, which is on a parcel the Affordable Housing Trust Fund acquired. The Affordable Housing Trust Fund purchased the property last July, when voters at the town meeting approved the purchase of the site for $175,000 — using Community Preservation Act funds, as recommended by the town’s Community Preservation Committee.

      Central Berkshire Habitat has sponsored newly built or renovations of existing homes in single and multi-unit structures and developments in Pittsfield and surrounding communities.

      “This will be the largest project we have undertaken, and the first one outside of central Berkshire County,” said Carolyn Valli, CEO of Central Berkshire Habitat. “The most units we have built before this in one project is six.”

      Central Berkshire Habitat is an independent affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, a global nonprofit housing organization working in nearly 2,100 communities across the United States and in 70 countries around the world.

      Founded in 1972, Central Berkshire Habitat provides affordable home ownership opportunities to residents who have steady jobs and incomes but do not earn enough to qualify for market-rate housing financing. It builds homes and provides financing in partnership with community volunteers and supporting businesses and agencies, with the selected homebuyers participating in the construction of their homes. It also sponsors educational and support programs for homeowners and training in the construction trades.

      The new project is temporarily named the Housatonic Homeownership Development. “We’re going to have a contest to give it a final name,” noted Valli.

The specific timeline for the project will depend on the resources that become available through contributions, grants, and other means. Valli said their goal is to conduct the necessary planning and preparation to break ground for the infrastructure in the spring of 2022 and build the homes in phases over six or seven years.

Affordability issue

Housing affordability has long been a critical issue in Great Barrington and adjacent communities. This pressure has been intensifying since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, due in part to a significant influx of residents from New York City and other metropolitan areas, which has boosted the demand and price for housing in the Berkshires.

      While the timeline of the project will not alleviate that immediate situation, Valli said it will make a significant difference over time.

      “Whatever happens due to COVID, there will continue to be a strong need to provide home ownership opportunities for working families,” said Valli. “Recent studies have indicated that most people who work in Great Barrington cannot afford to live there. It’s also important to make it possible for working people to own homes as a chance to build equity, which rentals do not.”

      Valli cited figures from the South Berkshire County Residential Real Estate Report, which rated the median price of a single-family house in Great Barrington as $339,000 in 2019 compared to $469,000 in November 2020. That price is only affordable to local families at 223 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) and is unaffordable to virtually all Great Barrington renters, she added.

      Valli said that all the development’s houses will be affordable to those at or below 100 percent of the AMI. The specific mix of eligible income levels will be based on the affordability gap illustrated in the 2020 Great Barrington Housing Needs Assessment.

      This would have an estimated composition of 10 percent of the units for those earning 100 percent of the AMI, 45 percent for those earning 80 percent of the AMI, 15 percent for those earning 60 percent of the AMI, and 30 percent of units for those earning 40 percent of the AMI.

      These units will be deed restricted to keep them affordable in perpetuity.

      Prices have not been determined but are expected to range from about $90,000 to $350,00 for the largest units.

      This is somewhat different than the housing Central Berkshire Habitat has built in the past, by opening up eligibility to those earning 100 percent of the AMI to account for differing needs in the Great Barrington community and market, according to Valli.

      Also, the town originally initiated the project in part to meet state affordable housing requirements. Central Berkshire Habitat and Construct Inc., a local nonprofit housing support organization, will work with the town and the Department of Housing and Community Development to implement a Local Initiatives Program to identify the houses as part of Great Barrington’s Affordable Housing Inventory.

      Valli said Central Berkshire Habitat was invited to participate in the project, which the Affordable Housing Trust Fund had initiated. with assistance from Construct.

 

Community dialogue

The project had initially aroused concerns and some controversy regarding the potential impacts on the infrastructure, taxes and character of the neighborhood, and the effect a large number of rental units might have.

      “There was a need for community dialogue,” Valli said. “We were invited to attend meetings to observe and make suggestions, and our participation grew from that. We subsequently presented a proposal in December.

      What was wonderful is that it became clear that people wanted Habitat to come in.”

      Following the town’s acceptance of Habitat and the concept of the development, the next step will be to apply for a special permit.

      An application is also being filed by the town for a MassWorks grant of about $700,000 to pay for water and sewer infrastructure. Central Berkshire Habitat will also be applying for grants.

      Valli emphasized that the neighborhood and community will be involved in the project’s planning. “We’ll be meeting regularly to discuss what people would like to see,” she said. “We also want to make sure what is there fits into the surrounding community in its design.”

      Central Berkshire Habitat intends to cluster the units with a buffer of green space. The buildings will incorporate features that are environmentally sustainable, require minimal maintenance, and are economical to operate.

      It will include a mix of three-bedroom and four-bedroom units, rather than the more standard two bedrooms.

      “We’re doing that to make it COVID adaptive,” she said. “We wanted to include an additional room that can be used as a home office or space for home schooling. Hopefully COVID will be long gone, but activities like remote working are likely to be a long-term trend beyond that.”