Nonprofit Targets Emergency Housing, Other Assistance In Southern Berkshire County
The Great Barrington, Massachusetts nonprofit Construct works on the front lines of Berkshire County’s housing crisis to help hundreds of families looking for stable housing, assistance with fuel and utility bills, and other support. Executive Director Jane Ralph spoke with WAMC before Construct’s “Warm Up the Winter Call to Action for Emergency Assistance” fundraiser on February 6th. Ralph discussed how COVID-19 has impacted housing in the region, how racial disparities emerge within housing needs, and how the nonprofit distributes funding.
RALPH: The current snapshot of housing, and especially affordable housing is getting even tighter than it already was. It's always been hard to come by, especially in the South Berkshires, but across the county as a whole. And with the influx of higher-end buyers coming into the market- I love having second home buyers here, but that is making it more difficult for others to find things that are affordable.
WAMC: Can you take me through the ripple effect of what happens when the housing market like that in Southern Berkshire County is largely market based?
A couple of things happen. One, it drives up the median house household price in the area, so that makes it more difficult for folks who need affordable housing to find it. It makes it harder for folks who could move perhaps on from affordable housing or who are renting at nominal market rates, but could afford to spend a little bit more- it keeps those folks in those affordable units, and then they don't open up for other people. What we consider our greatest success is when someone is able to move on from our housing, either into a market-rate unit or into homeownership.
So let's get back to the numbers. How many folks are looking for housing through Construct as of January 2021?
Well through Construct alone, we have over 600 households on our waitlist. And most of those folks are folks who consider the Berkshires home or they work here and are commuting too far a distance to really make it sustainable.
What kind of impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on the housing world?
Boy, there's just so many ways it's had an immediate impact on the housing world. First and foremost, so many folks are earning less than they were before. And so they're having a hard time making ends meet, they're having a hard time paying for their rent. And even with an eviction moratorium, they're getting farther and farther behind in their rent. So for that reason, we stepped up and really enhanced our rental assistance for this year. The other thing that's happening is folks are staying put. Folks are not moving, and so again, as I said before, it's not opening up units for other people. And then some folks are, you know, are going to work to try to make ends meet even when it may not be a healthier, safe decision to do that.
From your vantage point, what kind of legislation or public policy would help folks the most during a time as dire as what you're describing?
Well, short term, I think extending the eviction moratorium would help a great deal. I think some of the things that the governor did when he was ending the eviction moratorium have been helpful as well. RAFT assistance, the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, has been expanded. You no longer have to have an eviction notice to be able to get those funds. That's a huge step forward. Landlords can apply for those funds as well. But it's still a process, and it's still something that often folks need help with to get through it. So I think freeing up more flexible funds for folks to be able to get first, last and deposit, for folks to be able to get into the housing that's available and then to be able to keep it would help a great deal. And then of course, longer term, the simple answer is we just need more rental units at all levels, but especially affordably.
One of the major conversations of last year was about racial disparity in our society. Is that something that you see in the housing crisis in Southern Berkshire County?
We do, and I think where we see it most clearly is in the statistics, the demographics around homelessness. While there are fewer people of color in the Berkshires, and in Western Mass in general, people of color- Black people in particular, as well as Indigenous people- are overrepresented in the homeless population. So there may not be as many people living in poverty or with low income who are people of color, but then they're over represented in the homeless population.
Turning to Construct's winter fundraiser, you've turned to a virtual platform in lieu of an in-person gathering. Walk me through it. What's it going to look like, and what are those funds going to go toward?
It's going to be a great event. We've done this event for over 10 years. And as always, the headliner is Wanda Houston. This time, it will be the Wanda Houston Band as our only musical entertainment. There's some wonderful cameos from some of the actors and dignitaries here in the Berkshires who will speak to why they think the work of Construct is important. And then our MC Barney Stein will be taking folks through some of that as well, and then I've got a few things that I'll be saying as well. None of the funds go into Construct's general fund. They all go out into the community to keep people safe in the winter. And normally that's been for fuel assistance, other utility assistance, putting people up in a motel or hotel, if they've had some kind of natural emergency in their house, their heat goes out, there's a house fire or something like that. This year, we're also going to use it for other emergency housing. We did not get the funds we normally get from the state for hotel and motel stays for emergencies this winter, and then we will be using as needed those funds for rental assistance related to COVID as well.