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BRPC Discusses Countywide Affordable Housing Struggles

By Andy McKeever
iBerkshires Staff
10:48PM / Thursday, January 17, 2013
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BRPC held a roundtable discussion on affordable housing on Thursday.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Berkshire residents are not being paid enough to afford housing, according to the director of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority.

BCRHA Executive Director Brad Gordon met with representatives from nearly every Berkshire County town Thursday and from north to south, they all painted a sobering portrait of the rental housing stock.

In many of the county's rural areas, land and homes are too expensive to be affordable for many residents. While in the cities much of the housing is deplorable.

According to data collected by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and the Housing Authority, about 56 percent of all county renters are "rent burdened" - meaning more than 30 percent of their income goes to rent and about 60 percent of those are "severely rent burdened" - meaning more than 50 percent of their income is dedicated to rent.

The data continues to show that an average salary of $27,040 is needed to afford a one-bedroom apartment, $31,200 for a two-bedroom, $43,080 for a three-bedroom and $45,760 for a four bedroom. However, the median renter income is only $25,038. Thirty percent of the count's households rent.

At minimum wage, a resident needs to work 1.7 full-time jobs in order to pay for one-bedroom apartment and the prices just keep rising. In the last decade rents have increased by 53 percent.

After presenting the data, the BRPC representatives went around the room and explained their own town's housing problems.

In the more rural towns, representatives said vacant lots sell upward to $100,000 so building affordable rental units isn't economically feasible, nor is retrofitting a large house into multiple units - leaving a shortage of rental stock.

"If your making $30,000 a year, your not going to be able to live," James Lovejoy of Mount Washington said.

But in the larger municipalities where rents are lower, the rents are lower for a reason.

"It is that desperate in North Adams," said Kyle Hanlon. "Inspection services are overwhelmed. It is disturbing the level some of these properties are maintained."

Hanlon gave an example of rental homes he has seen with sewage that has been dripping into the basements for years.

"Even if the stock is available, it is not always stock you can use," said Sheila Irvin, of Pittsfield.
 

Brad Gordon was glad to hear that so many towns had taken steps towarding increasing their housing stock.

What tends to happen is workers live in the less expensive communities and commute to work in the others. Williamstown representative Pat DunLavey said he is "offended" that his town is a net importer of workers because so few can live there.

Despite having the goal of adding affordable housing in the town's master plan 10 years ago, Williamstown has lost affordable housing units. But, the town does have a strong focus on it now after Hurricane Irene destroyed nearly 100 units at the Spruces Mobile Home Park.

Others recapped the history of employers - like the county's mills - who would build housing for their employees or a time when there were more well-paying jobs available.

"I have a sense that the push toward the tourist economy has something to do with it," Mark Smith of Lenox said.

Stockbridge representative Kate Fletcher said the town is seeing a lot of second homeowners and wondered how much that was limiting the housing stock.

But Thursday wasn't just a chance for the commissioners to explain the problem but to begin thinking about ways to fix it. Nearly all said they've already taken steps toward increasing housing - mostly with zoning and identifying areas to increase density.

"We're trying to make it easier to build in the villages," New Marlborough Representative Jamie Mullen said, adding that previously the town had only one zone.

Gordon said the conversation was "eye-opening" because of house much every representative "cares" about the issue. But Gordon feels the majority of the responsibility in on the county's large employers and not so much on the planners.

"I think employers need to step up because in a lot ways, we're subsidizing them," Gordon said.

He said he'd like to implement a program where the larger employers chip in to build new rental units.

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