Higher Ground plans to work in Northern Berkshire
for affodable housing
Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association to launch
Welcome Home Massachusetts to boost housing throughout state
(First article by Mark Rondeau, co-organizer of NBIAI. Second article consists of notes from the meeting complied by Carol Marine of CHAPA)
A heightened local awareness of the importance of affordable housing dominated the Oct. 21 monthly meeting of the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative (NBIAI).
The NBIAI and Northern Berkshire Community Coalition (NBCC) hosted representatives of the non-profit Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) from Boston.
Aaron Gornstein, CHAPA executive director, said the group promotes affordable housing throughout Massachusetts. “We pride ourselves in really taking into account urban, suburban and rural communities,” he said. “We are active in all areas of the state.”
The flooding of the Spruces mobile home park in Williamstown by Tropical Storm Irene on Aug. 28 left more than 200 people, mostly elderly and on fixed incomes, without homes. Only a handful have moved back into the park since; many others have not yet found permanent, affordable housing.
Several of the 23 people who attended the Oct. 21 meeting were from Higher Ground, the group of mostly Williamstown residents who are working to help resettle the people left homeless by the flooding and who will seek longer-term solutions for affordable housing.
“The main issue for us is that all of the affordable housing, or housing that’s based on income, that could be supported by federal or state contract, is full within a 100-mile radius,” said Robin Lenz, who has led the efforts to directly aid Spruces residents.
Al Bashevkin, executive director of the NBCC, noted that the 220 units of housing in the Spruces park — where people who owned their trailers paid just $250 per month rent — is a lot of affordable housing to replace: “To take that off the market creates a huge affordable housing issue for this area.”
Bilal Ansari, a chaplain at Williams College and a member of Higher Ground, who worked on affordable housing in New Haven, Conn., said a huge problem in this area is that there is no real data on the need for affordable housing and no strategic plan to meet the need.
“Another great need is for a local affordable housing non-profit to be located in the Northern Berkshire area that is native, that has the best interests of this area at heart,” he said. “Everybody is reaching across the state for that. There needs to be one raised up so that it employs the local residents here in construction, it creates jobs.”
Mark Rondeau, co-organizer of the NBIAI, said one of his concerns is that in a year, when everyone displaced from the Spruces has been settled, the affordable housing issue will be dropped.
Margaret Johnson Ware, a member of Higher Ground, said the flooding has pointed out that there isn’t enough affordable housing in the whole area. The days when plentiful apartments are available in North Adams at a low price are long over. Others noted that rents in the city are now about $600 per month.
“I think the Spruces opened our eyes,” said Aleta Moncecchi, who works in Northern Berkshire for the Berkshire Community Action Council. “It’s always been an issue. It’s just the first time I thank that everybody’s stopped and realized it.”
Even for affordable housing organizations in the Berkshires, Northern Berkshire is not their focus. “What I’ve learned over the years, is if we’re going to pay attention to North Berkshire County, we need to have things located here,” Bashevkin said.
Asked who else needs to be at the table as the local affordable housing effort moves forward, those present mentioned the business community — especially developers; municipal and other elected officials; and those in need of affordable housing themselves.
Gornstein said a large coalition formed in 2010 in opposition to the November ballot quesiton to repeal the state’s affordable housing law. The referendum was defeated by a 58 to 42 percent vote.
Welcome Home Massachusetts
Some 2,500-3,000 people around the state were active on the campaign to save the affordable housing law. After the vote, they wanted to keep the momentum going. To that end, CHAPA has held meetings around the state and formulated a plan to begin early in 2012 called Welcome Home Massachusetts.
Over the course of three years, this initiative aims to increase the amount of affordable housing in urban, suburban and rural communities, and provide support to local groups. This will be done through a statewide messaging and media campaign highlighting the need for affordable housing. A second component will be education and information, particularly through a new website featuring an extensive online guide to implementing local housing strategies. Third will be in-depth assistance for five communities per year, 15 over three years, to achieve their affordable housing goals.
Gornstein explained that the Massachusetts affordable housing law, saved by the 2010 vote, is a zoning law that allows non-profits and for-profits developing affordable housing to expedite the permitting, including overriding local zoning barriers, though a developer still has to get all local approvals.
“It’s the primary way that whether you’re a housing authority, a non-profit or for-profit...that affordable housing is getting built today in suburban and rural communities,” he said. “Zoning does not typically allow for the kiind of housing that is being proposed.”
For instance, zoning may permit one home every one or two acres: “You can’t do affordable housing that way.”
Summary of North Adams Affordable Housing Meeting
October 21, 2011
1). Current Local Challenges
Tropical Storm Irene
Devastating loss for Spruces – mobile home community that housed elderly/disabled residents in 220 homes Many residents still do not have permanent housing and loss is taking severe emotional toll
Market rents are about $500 more than mobile home rents Despite 18 month rental assistance, there are no vacancies
Looming issue of landlord passing on removal costs to tenants of
Spruces, with costs estimated at $5000 per home
In addition to victims of TS Irene and families, college kids and
young adults are using local food pantries 600-800 membership of food pantries in North Adams and Adams, respectively, significant increase over prior years
Some college students may be forced to withdraw from school because of lack of funds to cover rent Average rent in North Berkshire County is estimated to be $600/month not including utilities
Need for transitional services and housing for families Median age in transitional housing has dropped by 10 years due to
economic disadvantage and no jobs, poor education and lack of GED
Suggestion of folks so desperate that they will commit petty crimes to get into prison system for food, shelter and medicine
Non profit formed in response to TS Irene to address immediate and permanent shelter, food and other needs of those displaced
Poised to have a longer and broader role in highlighting the lack of
affordable housing in the area and create solutions
Possibility of new CDC entering North Berkshire with structure and
capacity to increase affordable housing stock
2). Underserved Populations
Young adults (18 to 24 years)
Families (many are doubling up to share housing)
Rental housing tenants, particularly college students growing
pressure on rental market
Some rentals available but private landlords will not rent because of code issues and /or tenant issues
Many affordable apartments have been converted to condominiums
3). Other Community Leaders that Need to be Involved
Private developers: need to “marry non profits and private
developers” to tap funding and know how
Elected officials – state and local – some BOS are supportive but
Cool Committee (green)
LISC, Higher Ground and others can pull in officials
Employers such as colleges and hospitals – Williams already involved
Home owners/landlords of vacant units
Habitat for Humanity and other such groups
4). Collaboration and Regionalization
Berkshire County Regional Housing Corp and Western Massachusetts Coalition to End Homelessness are good models for collaboration
Regional Planning Commission of Berkshire County should be stakeholder Has a repository of data Strategic plans around land use In the process of completing three year plans
Recognition that collaboration of multiple communities may open up
more funding opportunities
Need to direct funds not only to permanent housing but to
transitional housing as well to avoid residents regressing
5). Solutions/Campaign Ideas
Collaboration with colleges such as involving students in data
collection UMass graduate school – host competition to build “exciting, green communities with affordable housing,” possibility with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as well and other schools; involve high schools, college alumni and community development corporations
With regard to technological resources, many in western MA do not have access to internet
Provide community room with internet Community effort to link people in need through internet, get them connected and use networking to increase access to housing options; then turn to education; essentially help people “restart” their lives through housing and internet housing resources
Cable TV is available to many who do not have internet so consider adapting resources to local cable TV
Also provide community space in houses of worship Focus on low cost NOT low income
Moveon.org model- and links to elected officials.