• Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch

The Plagues of Housing insecurity

On March 26, 2021, we welcomed Jane Ralph, Executive Director at Construct Inc. as part of our Shabbat evening service. The following is the sermon she delivered.


Thank you so much, Rabbis Hirsch and Gordon for the invitation to join you tonight. I come with a great deal of gratitude for Hevreh of the Southern Berkshires. So many Dayenus for all the ways you show up for our community, for Construct in particular, for the ways you bring hope and healing to those who need it most.


I also bring greetings from the Construct community of which you play such a huge part. On behalf of the staff, board and those we serve thank you so much! Thanks for providing homes through Jordan House and 41 Mahaiwe in particular and also for all your support for creating The House That Ernie Built –which has been Construct’s way of envisioning Forest Springs right down the road and all the homes in progress or still needed to make sure all our neighbors have homes they can afford.


And because of your part in starting and sustaining Warm Up the Winter, you may have heard me speak of why that is so important now. But it bears repeating: Now more than ever Housing is healthcare –we started saying that a year ago and it’s still true. At Construct we’ve said for over 50 years that without a safe decent place to live, everything else is so much more difficult and this past year has made that even more abundantly clear. Unless you are an essential worker and if you are lucky enough to still have a job, home is your workplace; Time and time again home is where our kids go to school; It’s our house of worship. Our gym, our theater, our library and, sadly, sometimes our hospital. Now, more than ever, a home makes all the difference.


And I am guessing that Hevreh’s Community may have learned what we’ve learned at Construct in this past year: That we have strengths we didn’t imagine –as do our tenant-s and vulnerabilities beyond our ability to address alone.


Which brings me to the moment at hand. Which is more than a little humbling! To be with you tonight as you prepare for Passover as a non-Jewish person is, on the one hand completely natural in that Hevreh has a culture of welcome and hospitality and I have always felt welcome. As a community, you really live love of neighbor and stranger. So it is as a neighbor and somewhat as a stranger to your faith that I come to you tonight with reflections on a few of the great themes of the day as they relate to Construct and “the ache for home that lives in all of us” as Maya Angelou puts it.


So the other hand is that I can’t really imagine what this sacred time means to you as individuals or as a community with deep roots and a rich, sometimes deeply painful history. A history that people raised in Christianity, as I was, often made worse, not better and I know that we still do. So while some of the themes: freedom, and also oppression, escape, and also enslavement, food and family, and also hunger and homelessness– may be universal, they are also culturally weighted toward your experience. Not a least common denominator.


I also only know the experience of Construct’s most vulnerable neighbor’s second hand. I have known what it’s like to not be able to afford to live in towns or cities where I’ve worked but I’ve always been able to find a place to live within a reasonable commute fairly easily. I have been listening to folks living homeless for 32 years and more recently to the growing number of folks who have not just decent jobs but needed careers: healthcare and human services workers, first responders, teachers, pastors as well as the folks who make the creative economy of the south Berkshires flourish. Many are on Construct’s growing waitlist for one of the rare openings in the homes we’ve built. Some are among the 100s helped by COVID-19 rental assistance. Some are Pinewoods, Forest Springs or Construct tenants and some have moved on to home ownership or market rate rentals.


When they talk about the plagues they have faced in the Berkshires and western mass, the history of which they carry, it sounds something like this:


The first plague is, of course COVID-19 and it makes the effect of the rest that much worse.


The second and third are Racism and Anti-Blackness. If you are black, you are 7 times more likely to be homeless; If you are brown, 4 times more likely. I hesitate to share this plague. My fear is that it will be perceived as an individual shortcoming rather than a consequence of historic and current housing discrimination.


The fourth and fifth are Bias Against Women and Children. Mostly young single mothers –this is the single largest category of households on our waitlist and the ones that remain in need of affordable housing the longest. Nobody says they don’t like kids but there is a definite bias against renting to families, especially single parent families even with enough income.


The sixth, our Aging Housing Stock and seventh, its Disparate Impact on People with Disabilities: If your house or apartment building was built 75-100 years ago as most of the more affordable ones were, it probably has lead paint; It probably has other toxic chemical emissions; It is probably not accessible if you use a cane or wheelchair, the insulation if there is any probably wasn’t intended to be a sound barrier. Noise can really set off anxiety, paranoia and other symptoms of invisible disabilities and make relationships with nearby neighbors much more challenging.


The eighth plague is a Tight Housing Market and ninth is the High Cost of Living. In January there were less than 2 months of inventory available for home ownership compared to over 9 months in January 2020. Pending sales continue to surge in the southern region, up 63% in January with 62 residential homes currently under contract compared to 38 last years. The jump in the dollar volume of these pending sales is also significant, now tracking at over $54 million dollars compared to $16.6 million last year. Sales in January have slowed due to unmet buyer demand. Median sales price for homes in Berkshire is over $430K. Rentals, well, no one is moving during the pandemic if they don’t have to and with the eviction moratorium and CDC guidelines, almost no one has to.


And, the 10th plague: NIMBY-ism, while I have actually seen less NIMBY-ism–not in my backyard generally in the Berkshires than anywhere I’ve work. When it gets specific, implicit bias raises its ugly head. Despite studies that show affordable housing –homeownership, apartments and, ideally, mixed income neighborhoods do NOT bring down property values, that is often the first “objective” criticism that’s levied. Followed by a desire to provide housing for “our own” which often translates to one or more versions of the other plagues. And I know second home owners get a bad rap in the Berkshires as well and are blamed for things far beyond their control but it’s safe to say that they do not face the same obstacles getting their homes built that Construct and other affordable housing developers do with ours.


So what’s the answer? Faith. Storytelling. Gatherings like this and like you will have in your homes this week. Faith that we can at all income levels recline with a fine food and 4 cups of wine. Faith that our wellbeing is tied up with those most affected by the plagues above. Faith that collective liberation is possible –and not just possible but desirable.

Faith followed up with action. Something Hevreh of the Southern Berkshires models ALL. THE. TIME.


I’ll leave you with one thought to ponder, and upon which to act. What if, instead of “not in my backyard”, we said “Yes in my backyard”? Which, in many ways you have by passing on 41 Mahaiwe to Construct when you built here. With Jordan House across the street, Genesis House and Forest Springs up the road, with your support of not just Construct but BASIC, Berkshire Immigrant Center, Volunteers in Medicine, Warm Up the Winter –the list goes on and on. You have said, “Yes in my backyard” through your words, actions and definitely putting resources on the line. 100s of individuals have benefited from the “yes in my backyard” actions that dot your history.


Hundreds, if not thousands, need that kind of action and commitment now. Will you join with all the hospitality you can muster; all the generosity at your command and all the experience of your ancestors and of your great faith itself and say, Yes in my backyard? I sincerely hope that the answer is yes, and will boldly guess that it is. Perhaps, it is for such a time as this that we are here. May it be so.

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