The battle to build an affordable housing development in Woodstock, N.Y., lasted 10 grueling years, including five years before the local planning board and countless town meetings.
The Woodstock Commons project faced a core group of opponents and became a well-known NIMBY case. It also built a team of supporters that included planners and architects who shared their professional opinions about the merits of the 53-unit development.
But, perhaps, no voice resonated more than Tamara Cooper’s. The soft-spoken single mother came to meeting after meeting to tell a personal story about growing up poor in West Virginia and the need for affordable housing in her adopted town of Woodstock.
“It was anxiety-producing to do it,” says Cooper. “It felt like a huge risk. It was also important to do.”
Woodstock is a pricey area to live, and it’s especially tough for renters. For every 100 extremely low-income renter households, there are only 15 affordable and available rental units in Ulster County, where Woodstock is located, according to an Affordability Gap Map by the Urban Institute. The gap between extremely low-income households and affordable and available rental units is more than 5,500.
“It’s also an area that draws people in a really heart-felt way that’s not necessarily based on their ability to afford housing here,” says Cooper, who has used Sec. 8 rental assistance to stabilize her own housing situation. “I think it’s very important for people to be able to choose their community for reasons other than this is where I can afford to live, but this is where I want to live and where I can make a difference.”
After the fourth or fifth time she spoke, Kevin O’Connor knew he wanted to do something to mark the impact she was having on the community. Cooper was putting a face on affordable housing.
“It was powerful for her to come into that community room,” says O’Connor, CEO of nonprofit Rural Ulster Preservation Corp. (RUPCO), the developer behind the controversial project.
When Cooper spoke, O’Connor could “feel the air in the room change.” Stereotypes about “those people” in affordable housing began to fade.
After finally receiving the go-ahead to proceed with its project, RUPCO built Woodstock Commons a few years ago. Since 2013, it’s been home to families, seniors, and artists.
But, there was one piece of business left to do. O’Connor still wanted to commemorate Cooper’s role in getting the project developed, but he wasn’t sure how to recognize her until he saw the work of artist Steve Hargash, an Ulster County resident, who often uses local residents in his paintings.
O’Connor hired Hargash to do a painting. The artist captured a town meeting, with Cooper standing at the podium, one hand on her chest and the other outstretched with her palm up as if she’s offering herself to the community. She is surrounded by other local supporters and RUPCO staffers. O’Connor is seen in the background, his arms crossed and wearing a hat. Hargash photographed the different players so he could incorporate them in the mural. The work is reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech” painting.
Cooper doesn’t live in Woodstock Commons but remains a supporter. “I’m still very much in favor it,” she says. “I’m in favor of affordable housing in general, and I’m proud of this particular project.”
Program director of the walk-in center and the hotline of social-service provider Family of Woodstock, Cooper thinks back on her experiences with the Woodstock Commons project.
“Part of my job is not just advocating for services from a professional place,” she says. “It’s also helping others find their own voices so they can speak from that place. It has a much more powerful effect on the community when low-income people can stand up and say this is what I bring to the community. This is where I want to live. This is what it means to me. This is what I mean to you and what people like me mean to you.”
Hargash’s mural was unveiled this week. It will hang in RUPCO’s Kirkland Hotel offices, and a copy will be displayed in the Woodstock Commons community room.