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Joe Thompson, Linda Tyer, Tim Geller, and Tim Burke serve on a housing issues panel moderated by state Sen. Adam Hinds at the Berkshire Athenaeum on Thursday.

Housing, Economy Discussed In First Housing Summit

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash was the keynote speaker.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Housing on upper floors of downtown buildings was forbidden for years.
Even if a developer wanted to build apartments or condominiums, it couldn't. But the city changed that a handful of years ago when it created a zoning overlay district to broaden the scope of what could be developed. 
And soon the investment followed. The Howard Block and the Onota Building have been converted to market-rate housing. The former Notre Dame School and the numerous other smaller buildings on North Street were also turned into market-rate housing.
Soon the Wright Building will go that way, too. There is a demand for market-rate housing in Pittsfield and developers are willing to fill that need.
For Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash, that's the key element to any downtown. He said market-rate housing brings in residents with more disposable income. That leads to more restaurants opening in the downtown. The restaurants lead to other types of retail and cultural offerings. 
"If I had one wish for cities, it would be market-rate housing in the downtown," Ash said in giving an address at the first annual Berkshire Realtors summit.
Ash's office provides incentives for private developers to do so. It manages the popular MassWorks infrastructure grant and the Housing Development Incentive Program — used for Howard and Onota buildings — aimed to encourage developers renovating historic and aging downtown buildings.
Mayor Linda Tyer is taking that concept and expanding it. 
"We have in Pittsfield been really successful in nurturing market rate housing in downtown," Tyer said, later adding, "We're going to take that same strategy and go around the corner and create housing opportunities on Tyler Street where they might not currently exist. Or other commercial endeavors that might not currently exist. Doing an overlay district in zoning areas  is an important tool community can use."
Tyler Street is already designated by the state as a Transformative Development Initiative area, a program overseen by Ash's office. Ash announced yet another $30,000 worth of funding for the city, as part of $140,000 throughout the state, to continue a storefront improvement enhancement program, helping owners offset the cost of improving the storefronts. 
Ash recognizes that the Berkshires and Massachusetts do have some "hurdles" when it comes to economic and housing development. Housing-wise, Ash renewed his commitment to helping develop an array of housing options to meet the needs of the residents. That will help turn the corner for such things as the dwindling population of the Berkshires. 
"The first thing I see is a great quality of life. The recreation, the culture, the restaurants are really spectacular," Ash said of the Berkshires. 
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Director Joseph Thompson said there have been some promising trends in North Adams' downtown. He has been following property sales through his role on the credit committee at MountainOne Bank and has watched both the number of sales and how they compare to assessed value.
"Forever in North Adams, there were not a lot of sales transactions and when there were, they tended to be at a discounted rate compared to the assessed value. That's changed," he said.
When Sprague Electric was gone and it was a brownfield site, Thompson said the trend was that housing prices increased as one moved farther from the city's core. That's reversed now and prices are rising near the downtown. He added that the total number of sales and the percentage of those at or above assessed value has been increasing. 
"Market-rate housing in the downtown core is one of the chief ways to drive economic value," Thompson said.
For North Adams, Mass MoCA served as an engine to bring tourists to the city. But for a long time, the downtown hadn't benefited as much as Thompson and others had anticipated. In the last few years, commercial activity has increased with nearly all of MoCA's commercial space filled when it had been around 50 to 60 filled percent for years.
As visitor attendance has risen, Thompson said more and more people start seeing the quality of life and consider living here. 
"The more people enjoying these institutions from afar are realizing the quality of life we have here," he said.
To really bolster the economics in North Adams, Thompson said there is "still a lot of day tripping." He said if the county could find ways to extend a visitor's time to an overnight stay, the economic impact would increase by six times. 
The economic development and the housing pieces are closely tied together — when the economy does well, the housing market does well, too. That is why real estate agents have been active in developing and pushing for state and community policies.
Berkshire County Board of Realtors Government Affairs Chairman Billy Keane said Realtors are pushing for such things as the Berkshire Flyer train route to increase tourism from New York City, the Housing Choice Initiative to build more housing, and legislation surrounding short-term rentals like AirBnB. 
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier said she hadn't really thought about that so much before taking office. But once she did she "found that the Realtors are true community partners." State Rep. John Barrett III said it was buy-in from community members such as real estate agents that helped Mass MoCA.
"We really are on the cusp of a lot of great things happening here," Barrett said.
In Pittsfield, Mill Town Capital has taken on an investor role aimed to improve the city. Recently it has delved into the real estate market. Director Tim Burke said he still believes there is a large demand for even more market-rate housing.
Beyond that, the housing stock itself needs better quality.
"Pittsfield needs more quality housing stock throughout the city," Burke said.

The 90-year-old Onota Building underwent a $9 million rehab to create 25 market-rate apartments in downtown Pittsfield. Along with the Howard Building, it was made possible in part by the state's Housing Development Incentive Program. 
Tyer will soon be launching a new program specifically eyed for that. She said she will soon be announcing the details of an "At Home in Pittsfield" program aimed to help homeowners invest in their properties and avoid homes falling into disrepair.
Burke also thinks there should be a program to help usher in new builds, which he hasn't seen a lot of in Pittsfield.
Tim Geller, executive director of the Community Development Corp. of South Berkshire, said there is also still a gap between home affordability and incomes. In South County, he said the larger towns have a $55,000 median income while the median home sales are just under $300,000. 
"You have this extreme gap between what more than half of the people are making and what more than half of the people can afford," he said. 
His organization has focused on rental housing more recently to provide that option. He also contends the other's point about market-rate housing being the driver of a downtown economy. He said to qualify for the affordable housing options the CDC develops, a family making $56,000 a year or less qualifies.
"Half of the people walking down the street in Great Barrington will qualify for the housing," he said. "The people that qualify for the housing we build are also drivers of that economy."
There is work to do on a number of fronts to improve the economy and in turn the housing market. But the trends are going the right way.
According to Berkshire Realtors, sales volume is up by 5 percent, multi-family unit sales are up 12 percent, condominium sales are up 71 percent, land sales are up 57 percent, and commercial sales are up 116 percent. 
Since the low point in 2008, the Berkshires has seen fairly consistent increases in the number of sales as well. The 878 homes sales in just the first six months of 2018 exceeded the highest point in the same timeframe in more than 20 years — the peak being in 2004 when 873 were sold in the first six months. 

Tags: affordable housing,   community development,   housing,   Real Estate,   

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Berkshire Immigrant Center Celebrates National Immigrant Heritage Month

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Beginning June 1, the Berkshire Immigrant Center invites the community to honor the more than 10,000 immigrants in the Berkshires and by joining the annual observance of national Immigrant Heritage Month and helping to launch a $10,000 fundraising campaign for the center.

"During Immigrant Heritage Month, we proudly honor the many ways immigrants make the Berkshires a better place," said BIC Executive Director Michelle Lopez. "This year we are especially grateful for the hundreds of foreign-born doctors, medical technicians, nurses and staff who are caring for people at Berkshire Medical Center, Fairview Hospital, and nursing homes, and for local immigrants who are essential workers at our grocery stores, restaurants and farms."

Since March 20, BIC has raised more than $70,000 for a COVID-19 Relief Fund. Through this fund, BIC has helped more than 140 clients and their families pay for basic needs like rent and utilities.

"We know that so many local people are hurting, both our clients and our supporters, yet even during this crisis people are asking us how they can help," Lopez said.

While 100 percent of emergency relief has been passed through to clients, donations to the Immigrant Heritage Month Campaign help ensure that BIC can serve the local immigrant community in crisis and beyond, including helping immigrants become US citizens. In this year of the U.S. Census count, BIC has also worked diligently to make sure that immigrants are counted and that Berkshire communities thus receive every dollar of federal aid that they should get.

Tax-deductible donations of any amount are welcome online. Contributions can also be made by check made out to Berkshire Immigrant Center and mailed to BIC, 67 East Street, Pittsfield MA 01201.

The center remains the only program in Berkshire County that focuses exclusively on meeting the unique challenges of a continuously growing immigrant and refugee population. In 2018 BIC was named "Best Small Nonprofit" in the state by Massachusetts Nonprofit Network.

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