A welcome win for affordable housing in New Marlborough

OUR OPINION

As regional prospects for affordability and growth feel the squeeze of a housing crunch, smart plans for new units in the Berkshires is the sort of good news we’ll always welcome.

So we were pleased to hear that a $2 million boost from a subsidized mortgage and grants is pushing an ambitious affordable housing project in New Marlborough closer to fruition. Back in 2022, South County nonprofit Construct Inc. bought Cassilis Farm, a Gilded Age estate off Hartsville New Marlborough Road, with the goal of converting the unoccupied 23-room mansion into multiple residences to meet a growing regional need. The 13 units — 11 apartments plus two single-family homes on the 20-acre property — are slated to be occupant-ready by early 2026 and will be the town of New Marlborough’s first affordable housing units.

In 2020, New Marlborough’s Affordable Housing Committee released a report underscoring concerns we’ve heard from business leaders, officials and advocates across the county: It’s becoming exceedingly difficult to attract families, keep fixed-income folks in their hometowns and maintain a healthy workforce when there are very few housing units for them to live in and even fewer considered affordable. As we’ve stressed before, Berkshire stakeholders need to focus on creating as many units as we can. While the housing crunch is a statewide issue that is bigger than any one community, local leaders can and should pursue creative and ambitious plans to put some points on the board for affordable housing — because in a housing squeeze this tight, every unit counts, especially in towns whose affordable stock is low or nonexistent.

This affordable housing plan at Cassilis Farm exemplifies what’s possible when public, private and nonprofit interests put their heads together and their money where their mouth is to meet a local and regional need. This endeavor is another feather in the hat for Construct, a nonprofit that has been instrumental in growing affordable housing in South County. The town of New Marlborough has some skin in the game as well, investing a chunk of federal pandemic relief funds and wisely putting conditions on the special permit that limit impact (maintain the building’s Gilded Age facade, put up trees or fences to prevent excessive light hitting neighboring properties) without being needlessly onerous. The $2 million secured last week comes from a $1.2 million subsidized mortgage held by Greylock Federal Credit Union — one that is permanently paid for by the government after construction — and an $850,000 grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston’s Affordable Housing Program. In addition, part of the project was funded by the generosity of private donations.

That’s a lot of pieces, but the puzzle that community partners can put together in the end is well worth it; 13 affordable units in a town of 1,500 that previously had none is a win worth celebrating in the larger battle to make it easier to live in a county so many love to call home.

Too often have parochial and NIMBY attitudes tripped up or even tanked critical affordable housing projects throughout the Berkshires. We’re happy to see that’s not the case here, and we hope projects like the Cassilis Farm renovation signal shifting priorities for residents and officials of communities recognizing the need for an all-hands-on deck approach to beefing up housing stock.

It appears to be catching on in small towns and cities alike. Just this week, the Pittsfield City Council voted to expand the downtown housing development zone in support of a proposed apartment project at 100 Wendell Ave. and the possibility of another such development at 55 Linden St. Broadening the zone to include those areas would unlock additional funding through the projects via a local tax increment exemption and state tax credits to offset the cost of qualified project expenditures. The City Council also approved a tax exemption plan for the 100 Wendell Ave. project to slowly phase in payments so that developer AM Management won’t immediately be hit with higher taxes after it invests a planned $3.8 million to convert the property from commercial to residential use.

These downtown Pittsfield prospects would not entail affordable units, but even still more market-rate supply to address demand is a good thing for the city at the heart of the Berk-shires. AM Management wants to convert 13 office Units at 100 Wendell Ave. into a 28-apartment complex it’s calling the Pointe, while Pittsfield’s community development director noted the property at 55 Linden St., the former Polish Community Club, has “potential” for future development. It bears repeating: We need all the units we can get, whether they’re built, preserved or converted.

These developments for cautious optimism on the region’s housing prospects came at a good time to blunt some disheartening news from Beacon Hill. Earlier this week, Gov. Maura Healey announced that a funding blast from the state’s Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program will assist 26 projects with building or preserving 1,900 units across 19 communities across the commonwealth. That sounds great, unless you read that news in Berkshire County and realize that none of those 19 municipalities is located west of the I-91 corridor. (Communities in Franklin County, the Berkshires’ neighbor to the northeast situated in the northern part of the 91 corridor, also were left out entirely.)

At this point, one might figure we westernmost constituents are used to being overlooked by Beacon Hill, but it still stings, especially in the context of a housing crisis just as pressing here as the rest of the state and a Healey administration that pledged to pursue regional equity. All the more reason why our Berkshire communities need to aggressively and creatively pursue opportunities to put a dent in the region’s housing crunch wherever and however they can. Kudos to New Marlborough, Construct and all involved in the Cassilis Farm housing project for modeling that effort.