Event explores ways to match housing to the need

GT.BARRINGTON–“The health and strength of our communities depends on affordable housing,” said Jennifer Dowling, president of the Berkshire Taconic Foundation (BTF) in her opening remarks at a recent regional symposium sponsored by the organization.
The Foundation’s mission is to build stronger communities and improve quality of life for all residents in a four-county area that straddles parts of eastern New York and western Massachusetts and Connecticut. And here, as in rural areas across the nation, affordable housing has become a special challenge. Bill Dunlaevy, vice chair of the BTF Board of Directors described affordable housing as “the cornerstone of our national and local economies… of our individual communities,” adding housing is “central to our independence and dignity.”
The BTF symposium, A Place for Everyone: Housing Options in Rural CT, MA, NY, held September 19 at the Mahaiwe Theatre, offered speakers, including federal and state housing officials and representatives from not-for-profit housing development groups, who discussed not only housing problems but innovative solutions. The audience included elected officials and members of volunteer housing groups.
Existing housing is either too scarce, too expensive, or both, said Mr. Dunlaevy. “Demographic trends and economic realities all point to a need for more smaller houses on smaller lots, that are energy-efficient, close to services like schools and grocery stores, and that are priced affordably for workers, young families, empty nesters and the elderly.”
In recent years, the portion of a family’s income spent on housing has crept up beyond the 30% that is considered the acceptable maximum. According to Mr. Dunlaevy, renters in Columbia County now spend an average 44% of their income on housing.  “The median household income… doesn’t come close to qualifying for a mortgage for the median sales price home in our counties,” he said. “You would have to earn an annual salary… around $50,000 just to afford to rent a two bedroom apartment. Many we depend on for essential services earn less than $50,000.”
Figures provided by the foundation show that tenants’ incomes have risen 7% over the past 11 years while rents have gone up 45%.
Who has housing problems? Senior citizens living on fixed incomes wanting relief from the burden of managing their family home that may need costly repairs. Young adults looking for a place to live while attending school, entering the work force or starting families. Artists, musicians, teachers, nurses, actors, volunteer firefighters, nurses, soldiers returning from active duty, and those who work in low paying fields or are in the process of changing careers and the disabled. They all need affordable housing and many, who cannot find it, leave. And consistently diminishing school enrollment is proof of this reality.
Diversity, one of the hallmarks of a vibrant neighborhood, often occurs in a place where ample affordable housing exists. Diversity and the businesses it fosters disappear when high rents force out those with lower incomes.
Local demographic studies have shown a drop in enrollment at schools and a drop in the population of people 25 to 34 years old. “A town with no children is a town with no future,” said Mr. Dunleavy.
Affordable housing developments do not adversely affect school budgets, local housing values or crime rates, and an enlarged tax base could help communities. “We want and need that kind of growth,” he said.
The idea that affordable housing and economic development are linked is relatively new, said Nick Lundgren, Connecticut’s director of Housing and Community Development. “It’s the right thing and the smart thing to do,” he said. “It boils down to creating great places to live and work for people who are here now and going forward. We are looking for housing that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in design, energy efficiency, and integration into communities.”
Every $1 million spent on funding for affordable housing leads to $27.6 million in economic benefits, said Jay Healey, director of the federal Department of Agriculture Rural Development in Massachusetts. “It’s not just about housing. It drives economies,” he said.
Speakers described new support for small developments like one in Kent, CT, where a farmhouse is being transformed into five apartments and in Stockbridge, MA, where 30 units of new housing were built on three acres of a 20-acre farm with the remaining 17 acres conserved for open space. In rural areas it’s necessary to think about density of housing differently according to what is right for each community said one speaker. “Density is not ugly if it’s designed well,” said a speaker.
Funding is available from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Home Loan Bank, a cooperative of many lending institutions, the USDA and other federal organizations.
Matthew Nelson, president of New York’s Office of Homes and Community Renewal, the  agency that brings together the state’s affordable housing corporation Housing Finance Agency, and other agencies under one administrative umbrella spoke about how the state works with rural communities to revitalize and preserve affordable and low income housing in an initiative called Rural Area Revitalization Projects (RARP). Now, under a new unified funding process, only one application is needed to access many different funding sources.
RARP provides financial and technical help for housing and community renewal activities. One of RARP project resulted in the transformation of 111 Main Street in Philmont from an empty service station to a popular restaurant, Local 111, which has helped revitalize Main Street in the village.
When people must spend too much spent on housing, they’re left with too little for food, clothing, transportation, healthcare and other necessities. Parents often are forced by economics to work two jobs and aren’t available to help kids with homework, said Mr. Donleavy. The greater the percentage of one’s income spent on rent, the less one has to spend in the community supporting the local economy.
One affordable housing initiative of the BTF is the Accessory Apartment Program, which provides a step-by-step guide for property owners interested in building an accessory apartment in a house, barn or elsewhere on their property. Zoning changes may be necessary to make the program work said program coordinator Jocelyn Ayer.
The link between economic growth and affordable housing was a refrain of the event. Without quality affordable housing, said Mr. Donleavy, “The rich and diverse fabric of our communities is in grave danger of unraveling.”
For more information: www.housingus.org or www.berkshiretaconic.org.

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