Alan Chartock | I, Publius: Affordable housing controversy as need goes unmet

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It's pretty plain and simple: Low-income people need a place to live in Great Barrington. The town is really short on affordable housing and everyone knows it. When I say "everyone," I mean just that. As a result, there is a fierce debate on the advisability of using the land on the site of the old Log Homes property to build affordable housing. It turns out, however, that the project is not without its complications.

Let's remember that this isn't charity. Great Barrington needs a work force. As unemployment numbers hit record lows, "Help Wanted" signs are popping up all over the place. Many people need to live near where they work. Cars are expensive. Gas prices are going up. Existing rentals at affordable prices are not easy to come by.

So there is a proposal on the table to use part of the former New England Log Homes site for the housing that is so needed. This is on the same Bridge Street where a brand new hotel will be built and a huge traffic back-up is already predicted.

The arguments against building the new development are beginning to emerge. Some people are concerned that we are corralling our poorer citizens into what amounts to a ghetto. This line of argument reasons that any new housing should serve both those with greater resources and those without.

That's the way it started out under the direction of Tim Geller, executive director of the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire. Unfortunately, because of myriad changing commonwealth rules, what was once a true mixed economic project has, for the time being, turned into a project that will serve only low income folks. That's too bad.

Arguments against

As it stands, there are two major arguments against the project.

The first is what we might call "ghettoization" of the poor. This means that those at the lower end of the economic spectrum will be living in a place that has the "poor people" stigma attached to it. A second caution advanced by those who have problems with the project involves the plot of land itself.

Apparently the selected land, as well as the rest of the land that will be used in the future, has not yet been remediated from the toxic chemicals on the site. That could leave residents there at risk and this, of course, is worrisome. As any student of Environmental Justice knows, it is not unusual to see those on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum being put into environmentally dangerous situations. In Albany, N.Y., for example, there was a concern that the tanker trains some people called potential "bombs" were putting lower income residents at risk.

Detoxification

In this case, once again, Geller and his group have tried. The two ways to best remediate the toxic ground have left the project with some vulnerabilities. One method would seal the toxins in. The other would actually clean the land itself. Unfortunately, neither has worked out.

The way the proposal for the project now stands is that as each building is put up, the land beneath that building will be detoxified as the project moves forward. That leaves the land surrounding the buildings still poisoned and that is the crux of the environmental argument against the project. As always, there are two sides to every idea and this project is no exception.

Geller and his group are doing their best with restricted resources to meet a pressing need while some folks are saying, "Nothing doing until you get it right. "

Tim Geller says that by the time this gets built, in all likelihood the place will be totally cleaned up. But in the meantime, the town's affordable housing need goes unmet. This will be an unfolding story and we will have to hear from town authorities, including Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin. As for me, I hope something gets done.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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