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Great Barrington, Lenox to offer local rent relief via nonprofit

The Great Barrington Affordable Housing Trust and Committee at a Thursday, April 2 meeting held via Zoom videoconferencing software.

GREAT BARRINGTON — Two south county towns are taking the next steps toward providing financial assistance to residents affected by the global pandemic of coronavirus.

The affordable housing trusts of Great Barrington and Lenox both voted to fund a rental assistance program to be administered by the Great Barrington-based affordable housing agency Construct Inc.

In separate presentations to each town’s affordable housing trust, Jane Ralph, executive director of Construct Inc, outlined how the program would help alleviate some of the financial hardships experienced by fronting a portion of rent payments to residents affected by job layoffs and other effects of the coronavirus crisis.

Ralph, as well as June Wolfe, the nonprofit’s housing director, spoke to the Lenox Affordable Housing Trust and Committee at a Thursday, April 2 meeting, and to the Great Barrington Affordable Housing Trust Fund at a Friday, April 3 meeting, both held via the Zoom video conferencing software.

“The first thing that our person does when they get an application from an applicant is to speak to the landlord,” Wolfe said. “They will reassure both the tenant and the landlord. They won’t have the rent by May 1, but they are certainly going to communicate with everybody in a timely manner.”

The plan calls for a pledge of $45,000 from the Lenox Affordable Housing Trust and a $35,000 pledge from the Great Barrington Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which will be distributed by Construct Inc, after a process of income verification for applicants.

“Housing is healthcare,” Wolfe said.

In her pitch to the Lenox Affordable Housing Trust and Committee, Ralph mentioned that about a third of the town’s residents are renters, representing 954 rental households throughout town.

“Your population tends to be a little bit older, so you have 32 percent of your population over the age of 65,” Ralph said to members of both the Lenox Affordable Housing Trust and Lenox Affordable Housing Committee. “Those people could be, or might start to get social security.”

Ralph added that she would like to see the rental assistance program spread into other south county towns, like Lee and Stockbridge, in an effort to share available resources. Neither Lee or Stockbridge have an Affordable Housing Trust.

Amid the uncertainty of the spread of coronavirus, there were some questions and concerns raised by some Lenox housing trust members about the proposed plan from Construct Inc.

The plan was questioned, but was unanimously approved in Great Barrington. In Lenox, the motion to fund the plan passed by a 4-2 vote. Trust member Kathleen McNulty Vaughan was not present for the online meeting.

Jackie McNinch, a member of the Lenox Affordable Housing Trust, had her reservations about implementing the program too soon.

“I really feel like it’s a little bit too early to be out there trying to advertise that we’re giving money away when there are so many resources for these people to be tapping in to,” she said.

McNinch, who cited her position as a loan officer at Adams Community Bank, said that as soon her company offered mortgage deferrals, there was a spike in customers calling to have their mortgage deferred.

She cautioned against advertising the rent relief program, ultimately voting the proposed plan down, along with trust member Julie DeGrigoli.

“I think if we had a one-off, where we heard if somebody in the community was really struggling … I think we have a great group of people on our committee and in our town, that they could individually come to our group and say they can’t make rent,” McNinch said.

Olga Weiss, a member of both the Lenox Affordable Housing Trust and the Lenox Affordable Housing Committee, said she worries for the local elderly population, saying the unknown timing of the situation should be a reason to fund the rent relief program.

“We don’t want to make the same mistake as the government has made,” Weiss said. “From a medical point of view, this is something going to go far beyond what we all anticipate.”

Marybeth Mitts, chairperson of the housing trust, echoed Weiss’ concerns, saying it would be better to have a plan than none at all.

“We cannot let perfect be the enemy of the good,” Mitts said.

Applications for the program will be available in the near future, said Ralph.

To learn more about the rent relief program, visit constructinc.org.

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