Foundation program supports affordable housing

GT. BARRINGTON, Mass–The Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation wants to make affordable housing part of the public conversation.

To do that, the foundation, working with Winterhouse Institute, a design firm in Falls Village, Conn., has mounted a public information campaign for HousingUs.

An initiative of the foundation, HousingUs is made up of community representatives and nonprofit affordable housing developers from three states who are committed to promoting and providing affordable housing options for seniors and working families in Columbia County, northeast Dutchess County, the northwest corner of Connecticut and Berkshire County, Mass.

The information campaign kicks off this month with billboards, a website ( and 80,000 brochures inserted in newspapers and mailed to residents throughout the tri-state area to promote understanding of affordable housing as key to the future success of this region.

“Affordable housing is still out of reach for people,” Housing Resources of Columbia County Executive Director Kevin O’Neill told The Columbia Paper this week.

In 2009, $185,000 was the median sale price for a house in Columbia County, with variations from town to town ranging from $135,000 in Greenport to $300,000 in Hillsdale, Mr. O’Neill said.

A person would need a $64,000 annual income to be able to make the payments on a $300,000 mortgage. “There are not many jobs in Columbia County that pay $30/hour,” Mr. O’Neill said.

To be able to afford an apartment with a monthly rent of $800 plus utilities of $150/month requires an annual income of $38,000, or $18/hour, also not easy to come by in this county.

Someone who makes a $15/hour wage has what is considered “a pretty good job” in the county, and at that wage a worker can afford a $75,000 mortgage.

“You just can’t find a house that’s habitable for that amount,” so that’s the gap between what’s affordable and the median cost for a house out there–$110,000, said Mr. O’Neill.

The HousingUs awareness campaign aims to bring the issue of affordable housing to life through the stories of people struggling to find an affordable place to live. “There is no better way to illustrate the issue of affordable housing than hearing real stories from the people most affected in our community. This is an issue about us as a community: our teachers, our children, our grandparents, our nurses, our firefighters, our friends and neighbors,” William Drenttel, designer and partner at Winterhouse Institute, said in a press release.

Winterhouse initiated, conceived and designed the project and secured funding through a $30,000 grant from Sappi Fine Paper North America’s Ideas that Matter program, which awards designers money to support local nonprofit initiatives.

Young people between the ages of 20 and 40 are leaving the region for financial and economic opportunities elsewhere, and though they may want to return to the town where they grew up, they find they cannot afford to come back, said Jennifer Dowley, the president of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation in a phone interview.

Because local fire departments are made up of volunteers, a real problem becomes evident when the people who volunteer want to settle down and buy a house in Chatham, for example, but find the only place they can afford is in Hudson, she said.

“Proposed affordable housing projects invariably meet with enormous resistance, but in actuality, when they are completed people say: My gosh, my grandmother now has a nice place to live, or Joe, who works for the town and plows the roads, lives there.

“Once these places are inhabited not by peoples’ fears but by reality, they become an integral part of the community,” Ms. Dowley said.

One such success story is High Pointe at Chatham, an affordable senior apartment complex developed by Housing Resources of Columbia County and Lee Rosen.

“The minute we broke ground on the project, people were asking us to build another one,” said Mr. O’Neill, who noted that a 37-unit addition to the 36-units now at High Pointe has received local approvals and is awaiting funding to proceed.

Mr. O’Neill calls the foundation’s effort to educate the public about affordable housing “important,” noting it’s about kids who grow up in the community and seniors who build their lives in the community being able to afford to live here.

Ms. Dowley agrees, “It’s not about social engineering or bringing in outsiders, it’s about maintaining the status quo and the existing diversity before any sector of the community becomes locked out. We don’t want to become a Martha’s Vineyard or an Aspen, Colorado, where people live elsewhere and come over on a boat to work.”

Brenda Adams, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Columbia County, said she had not heard about the foundation’s initiative before being told about it by this reporter, but she said it sounded like “a commendable cause” and one she was “interested in knowing more about.”

In addition to illustrating why affordable housing options are vital to a healthy community, the HousingUs brochure and website answer frequently asked questions about housing options, provide facts and figures about housing in the region and list resources and action steps geared toward achieving local solutions to the problem.

HousingUs also offers guides to create accessory apartments, a possible source of affordable housing. These guides are available on the website and describe the process of how to secure permission for, design, build and find a tenant for an apartment in one’s home, barn or garage.

The advisory board of Housing Us includes Housing Resources of Columbia County, Inc, covering Columbia and Dutchess counties; the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire, covering southern Berkshire County, Mass; and the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development, covering Litchfield County, Conn. Other board members include local community representatives and professionals from each of the three states who are dedicated to the goal of creating affordable housing and to the success of HousingUs and its mission.

For more information about local housing organizations and to print out the accessory apartment guides, visit or contact Jocelyn Ayer at (413) 528-8163 X 105 or .

To contact Diane Valden email .

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