Historic Housatonic Street school building is now income-eligible housing for people 55 and over

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BEN GARVER — THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
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LENOX — While there's no magic wand to relieve the town's chronic shortage of affordable housing, the recent opening of the 38-unit Lenox Schoolhouse Apartments offers independent-living homes for income-eligible folks 55 and older.

The renovation, completed in December by HallKeen Management of the former Cameron House assisted-living facility, cost $9.9 million, financed in part by federal and state tax credits and the state's Department of Housing and Community Development.

"We're providing a housing type that was really needed in the area, and the quality has turned out very well," said HallKeen's president and co-owner Andrew Burnes.

The company, with an extensive history of converting historic buildings into apartments, manages and has a small ownership stake in the property at 109 Housatonic St.

The building, first opened in 1908 as the town's second high school, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Part of what makes these projects expensive is that you're jumping through hoops for the historic renovations while processing hurdles for the affordability requirements," Burnes noted. Although the final historical certification awaits some minor touchups, "the project has gone as smoothly as it could have," he commented.

After Lenox Memorial Middle and High School opened on East Street in 1966, the Housatonic Street building became the Marguerite E. Cameron Elementary School. Three years after the school closed in 1998, the site reopened as the Cameron House assisted living facility.

Now, with vestiges of the old schoolhouse still visible in the historic wing, there are 22 modernized studios and 16 one-bedroom units with hardwood plank flooring and fully-applianced contemporary kitchens, as well as a fitness center, community lounge with kitchen, business center and media room.

The unfurnished units rent for $874 monthly for the 22 studios, while the 16 one-bedroom units go for $936. Heat, hot water and electricity are included in the one-year leases, but not cable or internet service. Life-safety systems such as fire alarms have been updated. All but eight studios and a sole one-bedroom apartment were still available as of Feb. 7.

An individual can have a yearly income up to $33,600 to be eligible for a rental, while a couple's maximum income is set at $38,400. The formula is based on federal guidelines stating that rent expenses should be no more than one-third of annual income.

Some apartments, such as four federally-funded Section 8 Housing Program voucher units, are priced at less than 50 percent of the median income for the county, while eligibility for others is based on 60 to 70 percent of the median income. One or two units are targeted for people who are at risk of homelessness, according to Burnes.

U.S. Census data lists median household income in Berkshire County at $52,253 as of 2016.

"One of the aspects of senior housing is to provide support services for residents from social service agencies such as Meals on Wheels," said Burnes. Assistance for daily living activities can be arranged and coordinated by outside social service vendors, but is not provided by HallKeen.

"It's a really nicely run facility, well thought-out, very supportive of the people living here," said one resident using the fitness center who preferred to remain unidentified. She's a county native who returned to the area after 35 years in California.

"I love the great location, the looks of the building and the managers are wonderful," said Elizabeth "Betty" Burdick, a North Adams native and lifelong Berkshire resident. "I'm very happy, it feels like I'm in a `Seinfeld' episode sometimes, with all the neighbors coming and going. Everybody is pretty friendly and helpful to one another. It's working well for us."

She relocated to the apartment in December after retiring from the Hunter & Graziano law office in Lee and selling her home on Williams Street in Pittsfield.

The Cameron House assisted-living facility had been in dire financial straits, Burnes recalled, and was close to bankruptcy in 2005 when HallKeen stepped in to manage the property as the new general partner.

"We believed we could turn it around, but it did not work out," he said. "We spent 10 years trying to make it work as an affordable facility. It was really unfortunate that we got to the point where we had to close it down, and there was no alternative."

He explained that for the final two years, the company "supported the property out of our pockets. We funded hundreds of thousands of dollars in operating deficits to keep the property functioning smoothly. It was really hard, expenses rising, vacancies increasing, rents going up. It was a perfect storm."

Burnes called the transition "a very difficult process, frankly one of the hardest things I've done in a 25-year career,with 30 people living here and 25 to 30 employees, among the most loyal, dedicated long-term employees we had in the whole company, great people."

"Saying goodbye to the employees and the work to transition the residents to comfortable, safe, good homes was just really complicated," he remembered. "But it went extremely well, no major problems, though obviously it's uncomfortable, and people were not happy to leave. But I think we found homes for everyone, whether it was going back to their families or to other facilities in the region, mostly in Berkshire County."

The renovation was handled by The Architectural Team based in Chelsea, and NEI General Contracting in Randolph.

"We had some issues, these things never go 100 percent smoothly," Burnes conceded. "But we worked through that with that team, essentially on budget and on time."

Information: 413-551-7641, or email: LenoxSchoolhouse@HallKeen.com. The property manager is Brenda Iacuessa.

Eagle correspondent Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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