PITTSFIELD -- While most of the recent attention has focused on emergency shelter for the city's homeless, a fledgling program is addressing the problem by expanding Pittsfield's stock of affordable rental units.

Paul Deslauriers of the Berkshire Community Organizing for Action (Co-Act) said his nonprofit organization is developing a "truly affordable housing" program that already is assisting eight individuals and could soon expand to house up to 24.

"We're trying to create affordable housing -- and create a different model to provide it," Deslauriers said.

Amid the flurry of recent community efforts to replace Co-Act's overnight cot shelter, which operated last winter but is not available this season, Deslauriers said a property owner -- James Conway -- offered to donate a house at 11 Faulkner Place.

While the house was not a candidate for an emergency shelter because of zoning and state safety regulations for public facilities, it was a good fit for individuals in a shared-living arrangement, Deslauriers said. He said eight people now live in the house.

Now, owners Conway and Ron Shaw want to transfer three adjacent houses on Francis Avenue to Co-Act. The nonprofit group is seeking a loan to pay the remaining mortgage amount on those properties, and eventually Co-Act could provide affordable housing for 16 more people.

Conway, who owns Conway's Bed & Breakfast in Stockbridge, said Co-Act hopes to secure a loan through Berkshire Bank to cover the outstanding mortgage amount. The Francis Avenue dwellings are in good shape and rented, he said, and the plan is for Co-Act to continue those rental agreements and add the affordable spaces as vacancies develop.

He and Deslauriers also credited Peter Lafayette, executive director of Berkshire Bank Foundation, with acting as a mentor, or "coach" in helping the group to establish the new program.

"This has been going well," Conway said. "They are doing a good job."

If the Francis Avenue buildings can be acquired, the total housed through the program could rise to 24, Deslauriers said, each with a separate room and sharing living quarters in one of the buildings.

Making the housing affordable, he said, includes setting a monthly rent of no more than $350 per person, including utilities, which is below what individuals or couples might pay when seeking an apartment on their own.

The costs for an apartment easily reach $800 to $1,000 a month, Deslauriers said, not including security deposits.

He added that the federal rent subsidy program, which provides vouchers for those who qualify, has a waiting list locally and nationally, and that program has been reduced because of cuts in the federal budget. There is a demonstrable need for more affordable housing, he said.

Another key component of the evolving Co-Act program, Deslauriers said, is the training held at the organization's Pearl Street Center in Pittsfield on the basics of living communally and communicating with others, including settling disputes that might arise.

He said people who became housemates have often met during weekly sessions of what is called The Advocate Training program and realized they might be able to live together cooperatively. People in the program are then urged to help train others in the same skills. They also pledge to perform eight hours of community service per week.

People in the first house on Faulkner Street "have really learned to live together as a community," Deslauriers said. "And each has said this is the best living situations they have ever had in their lives."

Rehabilitation of some of the vacant housing units in Pittsfield is another, more long-term goal of the program, he said. That would be accomplished with volunteer help and expertise, he said, but aspects still are being worked out.

"We are really looking to create a lasting solution to the homelessness program," he said.

To reach Jim Therrien:
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