PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Gov. Charlie Baker is looking to curb a housing crisis in the Boston metro area through his Housing Choice Initiative.
But the program will be used little, if at all, in the Berkshires where the issue isn't so much the need for new housing but for rehabilitation of older housing. But this area does rely heavily on such programs as MassWorks, Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities, and the state Department of Transportation's capital and Complete Streets programs. Language in the Housing Choice Initiative puts the Berkshires at a disadvantage for those.
Those grant programs are competitive among communities across the state. The Baker administration is now saying that should a community participate in the Housing Choice Initiative program, it would receive "bonus points" on its application for those other programs.
"We are not going to change the desire of the Baker administration to develop a funding mechanism to build housing in the eastern part of the state. We just want to make sure we are not penalized," Pittsfield's Department of Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer told the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's Regional Issues Committee.
"The program is already based upon inequities. Take out that bonus and then we'll be quiet."
Rents, particularly in the Boston area, have been skyrocketing. Baker's program incentivizes community to construct new housing units with a goal of creating 135,000 new units by 2025. Communities can receive designation as a housing choice community which will open them up for technical assistance grants for planning, zoning, and infrastructure to promote housing developments.
BRPC says that's all well and good, and recognizes the housing issues. But in the Berkshires, the population is declining and there are adequate levels of housing now.
But, the housing stock is aged and needs repair. BRPC said a bigger need here would be for a program to help with housing renovation projects, which this one doesn't address.
"Oftentimes when things are generated in Boston they have good intentions capture a good portion of the state but we here in Berkshire County have our own set of real-time challenges and this legislation doesn't touch that," said New Marlborough representative James Mullen.
BRPC is now writing a letter requesting changes to the program not so much to address the Berkshires' need, but more focused on removing those bonus points so that the Berkshires doesn't lose competitiveness in grant programs that do address local needs.
The program is coupled with a piece of legislation that BRPC does see as potentially helpful. The proposed rewritten law looks to increase the tools a city or town has to permit housing projects through zoning and drops the threshold for housing-related bylaw changes to receive approval.
"It is a piece of legislation that has the potential to benefit every single community in the Commonwealth," Ruffer said.
Zoning laws tend to be an issue state lawmakers don't take up. It can get complicated and detailed. For years comprehensive land-use legislation has been talked about but never taken on in earnest.
The Housing Choice Initiative has led to a focus on the zoning for housing-related projects and updating is welcomed from local planners. Ruffer said taking small chunks of zoning to be updated at a time may prove to be a better way of overhauling all of the laws than trying a comprehensive take all at once
BRPC Executive Director Nathaniel Karns suggested the organization write to lawmakers in support of the legislation, but at the same time urge them to continue with other zoning issues as well. Karns fears that address those outdated land use regulations will go into a "deep freeze" should this legislation pass.
"This is widely applied legislation that will benefit a lot of people. Let's work on more of that," Pittsfield representative Sheila Irvin said.
Williamstown representative Andrew Groff pointed out somewhat of a flaw in the language he felt could open towns up to challenges, which BRPC is also looking to be clarified in the language.
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