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Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire moving to acquire Marble Block in Great Barrington to protect affordable housing

The Marble Block building in downtown Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
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The Marble Block building in downtown Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

The Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire announced today that it has entered a more than $2 million agreement to buy the Marble Block property in downtown Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Citing the scarcity of affordable housing units in both the town and region, the organization says it’s the only way to protect the eight such units already in the building from being transformed into market rate housing. To do so, the nonprofit is trying to raise $1 million by December 31st to not only buy the building – first erected in 1902 – but to stabilize rents for a year, carry out renovations, and retain the current residents. WAMC spoke with Executive Director Carol Bosco Baumann.

BOSCO BAUMANN: We are interested in purchasing the historic Marble Block in Great Barrington in order to preserve the naturally occurring affordable housing units that exist in that building, in addition to any retail and commercial.

WAMC: Now, you're trying to raise a million dollars by the end of December to pursue this project. How do you anticipate raising that money? And where's it going to go to?

It's an ambitious goal, I know. So, $600,000 of that will go for the down payment on the building. Financing for affordable housing is a very complicated and time-consuming effort. And so, we were hoping to get the initial financing through traditional means, and part of that would be coming up with that down payment.

Tell us more about the property itself. Why is the Marble Block an appropriate venue to try to preserve affordable housing in downtown Great Barrington?

Well, number one is, we're interested in preserving that naturally occurring affordable housing known as NOAH, and that actually constitutes the largest supply of affordable units in our country, nationwide. So that's the most at-risk form of housing. So, we want to make sure that that we preserve that as more and more of our community members are becoming rent-burdened. As far as the commercial is concerned, part of the appeal is having a mixed-use property like that means that the retail space makes it a less volatile investment because it creates a diversified revenue stream. We don't know how many others were making offers on this building, but we all know that the real estate market has been very strong and very competitive. And that's why we decided to move quickly.

For years, housing activists in Southern Berkshire County have described the situation as being a full-on crisis. Can you break down how exactly acquiring the marble block and the affordable housing units within it would impact that situation for not just Great Barrington, but for the region at large?

The impact that this will make is to preserve the naturally occurring affordable housing units that I described, which will help serve people who are in that missing middle. So, there are some folks who qualify for the affordable housing that you would see at Bentley Apartments, for example, or Windrush Commons, our other development that we are co-developing with Way Finders at the southern end of Main Street in Great Barrington. So, those types of housing are for folks who are typically very low income, so people who would qualify to live there would make anywhere from 30% to 60% of area median income, which is $92,100. And what this will do is, the units are actually at a very affordable level right now and they are in that lower to middle income level. And so, we know that preserving those helps to just keep more of those units in the market. And we think that if this property had been purchased by a for-profit developer, that they might decide to do some renovation work and increase those rents to market rate.

At this time, are you concerned about any pushback from the community about this new effort to create affordable housing in downtown Great Barrington?

I'm not anticipating any pushback on that from community members. They've walked around town or tried going to a local bank and the bank drive-through was closed or lobby may have had limited hours due to staffing issues. I know that one of the restaurants on Railroad Street closed because they didn't have enough staffing. So, the housing, the fact that we don't have enough housing that is affordable to all is a problem that is impacting us all and not everybody sees it on a daily basis, but it's definitely there.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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