Lenox launches aid for renters, tenants to ease virus burden
LENOX — A $45,000 emergency rental assistance program will get underway soon to assist local households at or below the area's median household income — and landlords — amid the coronavirus crisis.
The funding comes out of the Affordable Housing Trust, which has $417,000 in Community Preservation Act reserves granted by voters at previous annual town meetings.
The program was created by town's Affordable Housing Trust and Committee with Construct Inc., the housing and social assistance nonprofit based in Great Barrington, Selectwoman Marybeth Mitts told the Select Board at its recent virtual meeting.
Construct will market and operate the program, handling applications and income eligibility guidelines, with monthly reimbursement from the town of Lenox.
The areawide median income for an individual in Berkshire County, including Lenox, is $56,000, increasing to $64,000 for a two-member household, $72,000 for a three-person household and $80,000 for a household of four. The 2019 federal guidelines are due to be slightly adjusted later this month.
The funding for eligible individuals and families at or below these median incomes will help Lenox tenants and landlords facing financial challenges during the COVID-19 health emergency.
"There is so much uncertainty in the economy, and people are anxious about their own health, the health of their loved ones, and their financial stability," said Mitts, who chairs the town's Affordable Housing Trust and Committee. "This takes at least one of those stressors off the list."
The program was created through guidance set out by the Massachusetts Housing Partnership for use of state CPA funds. Lenox is using its Affordable Housing Trust funds to run the temporary 90-day program to help renters and local mom-and-pop landlords in Lenox, Mitts said.
"It will help keep everybody whole," Mitts pointed out. "We're helping people maintain their rental payments, landlords will be getting their rental payments and we're keeping people safe in their homes. It's a health and safety program because we're making sure they stay safe."
Applications will be available on the Town of Lenox website, www.townoflenox.com, and Construct's website, www.constructinc.org, in English and Spanish beginning this Friday. Applications for May rental assistance will be due April 15. Construct has interpretive services as needed.
The new program is in addition to the first-time homebuyer grant program already administered by the Affordable Housing Trust, which recently increased eligibility income limits for homebuyers making up to 100 percent of the Area Median Income.
Land Use Director and Town Planner Gwen Miller notified Mitts and Tony Patella, chairman of the Lenox CPA Committee, that taxpayer-supported CPA funds can be used for emergency rental assistance after the COVID-19 statewide nonessential activity shutdown began last month.
Miller reached out to four agencies providing rental assistance programs to Berkshire County residents, and only Construct replied with an interest in partnering to provide emergency rental program administration, Mitts told The Eagle.
To qualify, tenants must make no more than 100 percent of the Area Median Income as determined by federal agencies, and be able to pay at least 35 percent of their monthly income for their rent. While the Affordable Housing Trust will provide funds, Construct will administer the program. The partnership also ensures that residents will get connected to existing resources as need is demonstrated.
"Housing is health care," said June Wolfe, Construct's housing director. "By helping residents stay in their homes, and helping landlords make the income they need to keep the home or apartment safe and habitable, everybody wins."
"This will help shore up the local economy by maintaining cash flow and helping `mom and pop' landlords who may not have the same level of resources available to them to help alleviate pressure on their tenants," added Jane Ralph, executive director of Construct.
The newly announced program is subject to evaluation to determine if it needs to be extended beyond the initial three months.
Construct has a similar program in Great Barrington, Mitts said.
"We're hoping that coming in front of this and being a leader in this program will also encourage other Berkshire County towns will do a similar thing," she said. "This will also contribute to keeping money in the hands of mom-and-pop landlords. It's helping the fabric of the economy within Berkshire County."
"This is a positive thing we can do that will directly help residents in very trying times," said Olga Weiss of the Affordable Housing Trust. "It is the right thing to do."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
This story has been modified to correct information about eligibility for the program.
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