PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It'll be a series of firsts for Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity when it builds six net-zero energy use condominiums on land on Deming Street.
It is the first such project for the organization. It is the first time it had used a panel-build day. It is the first time a bank is financing the project. And it is the first for a "homebuilders blitz."
The project has been long-awaited but finally broke ground on Friday.
"Habitat brings people together to build homes, communities, and hope and nobody does that better than the Berkshires," Executive Director Carolyn Valli said.
The project began in 2009 when Berkshire Gas donated the parcel at the intersection of Gordon Street. The company owned a building there that was later demolished. The grass has since grown back and the parcel has been just lawn for years.
"When Berkshire Gas was first contemplating donating this parcel, then-Mayor [James] Ruberto was quick to suggest Habitat for Humanity as the beneficiary. Standing here some 10 years later, we could not be happier with that suggestion and with our decision to offer this parcel to Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity," said Berkshire Gas President Franklyn Reynolds. "The work of Habitat and its legion of dedicated volunteers is a story well know both here in Berkshire County and across the United States. We could not be more thrilled to be a small part of that story here in Pittsfield."
A plan began to come together. Instead of using the land to build just one home, the project's scope expanded to essentially creating a miniature village. Habitat built the structure of a homeowners association. And worked out how the development would be managed and maintained. But there was one large missing piece.
"We have been working on this project for 10 years and every time we crunched the numbers, and I'm creative, we don't have enough for the infrastructure," Valli said.
The project will need a new road and water system for fire suppression. White Engineering kept working on the design to make the ends meet but it kept falling short every single time.
Valli was then sitting at a housing training with Community Development & Housing Program Manager Justine Dodds. The two started talking about the state's MassWorks program that funds infrastructure projects. Valli's ears perked up as she wondered if the state would fund the proposed village. Dodds wasn't so sure but she said she'd ask.
It wasn't that long afterward that Valli was attending her daughter's wedding and her phone rang. Dodds apologized for interrupting the wedding, but she found out that the project was eligible. And that the deadline was imminent. Valli got through the ceremony and quickly put together the application and sent it in.
"There was not a person in city government that didn't say, let me help you design it, let me really make an impact on it," Valli said.
In November 2017, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito strolled into City Hall with a $425,000 check in hand to fund that infrastructure work.
And then there was the financing of the homes themselves. Valli said Habitat has typically held the mortgages and so every project is essentially raising the money for a house over and over again. For this, it had to be done another way. Valli said Greylock Federal Credit Union designed a product to get the homes financed at a "generous rate."
Permitting created another snag. The land is by the river so there are wetlands issues that had to be addressed. But, it was too tight after the structures and roads were put in. Habitat had to purchase a small chunk of land and turn it into wetlands to replace what is being lost.
During all of this, there was an itch to get working and the materials were all lined up. Gary Levante of the Berkshire Bank called Valli and asked if his 150 volunteers would be of any assistance. Valli questioned him how long? Would it be over the course of a month, a year?
Habitat's staff got together to figure out if they could handle something like that and a "panel build" was suggested. In June 2018, Berkshire Bank closed its local branches and sent the employees to the shopping plaza on Merrill Road where owner Mike Panek had donated a large vacant store for Habitat to build and store all of the walls needed. The volunteers then went to task and constructed all of the panels.
"We are going to see walls go up like that," Valli said of how that pre-work will help the construction.
Now all of that is out of the way. The city awarded the infrastructure contract and Habitat can get to work. Construction will hastily advance this fall and four of the six units will be built by local trade companies. Allegrone, Pariseau Heating and Colling, RAM Electric, Tatro Flooring, White Engineering, and WJ Blueprint are all doing a "homebuilders blitz" to put up those units in one week.
"They're not doing it alone. They are looking for partners in the trades," Valli said, adding that particularly they are looking for electricians and HVAC people to assist in the September project.
One of the other two units will be done through the Women Built program Habitat has been doing for a few years and the other will be constructed with yet another first. Habitat is organizing a "Build and Repair Corps"program.
The program is for workforce development with cohorts of people interested in the trades to take a 10 1/2 month training program to get them on the path to get trades licenses.
Valli said that will also dovetail with a repair program the organization is looking to launch to help existing homeowners fix up their homes.
It had taken some time and it had taken a number of partners. But that is what makes Habitat so special for state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier. She admires how industry, government, volunteers, banks, and services -- even education is playing a part as Taconic High School's vocational programs are getting involved with this build -- came together for a common goal.
"Habitat represents the very best of our community," Farley-Bouvier said.
Farley-Bouvier said such projects don't just help one person but everybody. She said the homes provide a stable place for families and stronger families are better for the entire community.
"We know that a stable home in a great neighborhood is a foundation for a family," Farley-Bouvier said.
Matt Russert from U.S. Rep. Richard Neal's office said such projects address a big need in not only the Berkshires but America. He said a third of Americans are paying more than 30 percent of their income to housing and in rural areas that number climbs to 50 percent.
"We know that this is putting downward pressure on low-income Americans and squeezing out the middle class of the opportunity of homeownership," Russert said. "A home can be a pathway out of poverty for some families, provide financial independence, freedom, stability, and security. Today we break ground of a project that flies in the face of this issue."
Mayor Linda Tyer has a long-lasting memory dating eight years prior to Berkshire Gas' donation. It was the day she purchased her first home. She remembers that feeling of excitement and thrill of becoming a homeowner. It is something she believes everybody should have the ability to feel.
"Homes and houses and safe places for families, no matter what your life's circumstances are, create that safe haven that every family, every child ought to have. Without Habitat we would not be able to make these great strides," Tyer said.
And soon, six other families will have that feeling for the first time.