PITTSFIELD — When the Zion Lutheran congregation came together on Dec. 11, church leaders say the message was unanimous: the church will play a major part in the way Pittsfield is responding to homelessness.
“These buildings have a larger life,” said Jim McGrath, the Zion Lutheran Church council president. “We’re really excited, we think this is a really important project that not only addresses homelessness in our city but helps us remain agile and uses our building for a greater good.”
The congregation voted unanimously this month to support a memorandum of agreement between Zion and the Berkshire Housing Development Corporation for the creation of permanent supportive housing units and a housing resource center within the church on First Street.
McGrath said that the agreement “spells out how we will work together over the coming weeks and months to get this project toward the finish line.”
The project was announced in July, as part of a group of proposals focused on increasing affordable and supportive housing options.
Berkshire Housing plans to make the former Sunday school class space on the second floor into nine single-occupancy unit apartments each with its own bathroom, kitchen and living space.
In the church basement, a housing resource center would be built as a kind of one-stop shop for people looking for housing help. Plans call for the building of individual showers and bathroom facilities, mailboxes, a quiet lounge area, computer lab, phone charging station, office and consulting space.
Mayor Linda Tyer announced in July that the projects and others will be recipients of just over 20 percent of the city’s $40.6 million in American Rescue Plan funds.
Eileen Peltier, the CEO and president of Berkshire Housing, said that was welcome news for the two Zion-related projects which are estimated to cost a combined total of $9.5 million to complete.
“At the end of the day, doing affordable housing development — it has to pencil out and too often it doesn’t,” Peltier said.
Peltier said that nearly all of the funding for the projects are lined up. She said that $5 million in ARPA money will go to the resource center and another $1.2 million in ARPA money will go to the apartment spaces.
How much of Pittsfield's American Rescue Plan Act money was allocated in 2022? And what's left of the city's $40.6 million?
Nearly 80 percent of all of Pittsfield’s federal coronavirus relief money has been set aside, spent or allocated to city and community projects — leaving about $8.9 million still to use as the city and nation close out the third year of the pandemic.
A $200,000 earmark from the state’s fiscal year 2022 budget — secured by state Rep. Tricia Farley Bouvier — will be used toward the apartments as well.
Berkshire Housing is hoping to secure another $2.5 million in funding by the spring or early summer from the Department of Housing and Community Development grants and other state and federal sources, according to Peltier.
Discussion started a year ago between Peltier and Zion Pastor Joel Bergeland over how the church might play a role in Pittsfield’s housing crisis. In February, the congregation voted to authorize the start of formal negotiations with Berkshire Housing.
That was a pivotal milestone for the project, but far from an official greenlight. Bergeland said after the February vote, several members of the congregation were still unsure if creating housing in the church space was the right way forward.
That the vote earlier this month was unanimously in support of the project speaks volumes of the congregation, the pastor added.
“I think people ended up feeling really heard at Zion,” Bergeland said. “It just takes time, it takes honoring of voice and then you kind of catch the spirit from other people.”
McGrath said the memorandum of agreement signed by the church and Berkshire Housing was an important part in developing that consensus.
Under the agreement, Zion will lease the former Sunday school class space on the second floor of the church for 60 years and the basement space for 10 years to Berkshire Housing.
Bergeland, McGrath and Peltier said the document also lays out the splitting of utility costs, creation of secure entrances for each segment of the building and regular meetings between church and Berkshire Housing leadership among other elements.
Once the final funding is secured Berkshire Housing and Zion will draft the official leases and Peltier said she’s hopeful that construction would be able to start in the fall of 2023. A year after that, the first tenants could be moving in.
Bergeland said that he’s counting down to that moment.
People living on the streets of Pittsfield want more places to stay and more opportunities to get help. Until they have them, they're relying on each other as much as they can. Eagle reporter Matt Martinez speaks with people finding shelter on North Street doorsteps; inventive people at Springside Park; and a young couple expecting a baby in March who stay warm at the library during the day.
He said like many congregations in Pittsfield’s downtown, the congregation see many “neighbors around church who either are homeless or who look like they could use a hand.”
“I feel like it’s a common experience to be confronted by someone’s problems and to know that you’re not resourced to solve them in that moment,” Bergeland said. “So for us it’s going to feel really good to be able to actually help someone.”
Peltier said she’s excited to see how the projects bring more than just much needed room and resources to Pittsfield’s city center.
“The hope that there will be connections made and that the volunteers within the congregation will really enhance the programming is to me a really wonderful thing,” Peltier said.
“If we’re really ever going to address some of the challenges around the unhoused people in Berkshire County, we really need more than just physical spaces to be built —we need connections to community. That’s what I’m really excited about with this project.”