Collaboration Key to Housing, Hunger Solutions Say Local Leaders
LENOX, Mass. — Organizations and officials agree that collaboration is the key to addressing the housing crisis and food insecurity.
More than 100 stakeholders piled into Town Hall to share ideas during a summit hosted by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli. The event covered the renovation and maintenance of existing housing units, resources at food sites, tenant advocacy, and the development of new affordable units.
Pignatelli said housing and food insecurity are hot topics in the State House and recognized the individual needs of Berkshire County.
"Boston is not the Berkshires and the Berkshires are not Boston. Now when it comes to housing, and I've talked to many of you over the last couple of years, we might be 400 or 500 units short in Great Barrington alone but I can promise you, I can almost assure you that there's not one person in the area nor any town in Berkshire County that wants 400 units in one location," he said.
"And that's why I've been really advocating for 25 in West Stockbridge and 100 in Great Barrington and 50 in Lenox and 75 in Lee. Just sprinkle them around. And I say that about my district but I think the same can be said for Lanesborough and North Adams and Adams and Clarksburg and Williamstown. I think a patchwork quilt of housing affordability options are what is going to make The Berkshires special and make people feel they're blending into the communities that they have without the stigma of where they live and I think that's really an important conversation to have."
Last month, Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency over the rapidly rising numbers of migrant families arriving in the state and severe lack of shelter. Pignatelli said that with a new administration committed to solving the problem of housing but not having a plan, it is a good conversation to have.
"We have to help plan," he said. "The state government is not going to fund ideas, they're going to fund plans so I encourage our towns and our individual organizations to come up with a plan."
In a survey that ran from July through September, insufficient housing and wages were identified as the problems that seem most foundational to housing and food security challenges and the same were identified as the two hardest aspects to overcome.
About 100 county residents responded to the survey.
"What this tells us is these issues that are most foundational, the ones that we really need to take on if we're going to see change, are also the hardest to change," said Jim Ayres of Strategies for Collaborative Impact and Justice.
He added that because the issues are hard to address, working together in a collaborative forum is extremely important.
Representatives from Construct Inc. and the Community Development Corp. of South Berkshire highlighted their efforts to acquire properties and sell them affordably.
Last year, Construct held a lottery for two "affordable" houses in Lenox for $254,000 each.
"But there are some problems with it," Housing Director June Wolfe said, explaining that it is a slow process and the inventory is very low.
CDCSB Executive Director Carol Bosco Baumann added that a lot of towns are sharing the same building inspectors and there needs to be education in that area since the housing program relies on verification from an inspector.
"We've been looking into housing and one thing that keeps coming up is the 30 percent rule," Berkshire Interfaith Organizing President Barbara Johnson said.
"We're trying to understand more about that but apparently, if you're going to do repairs on a property, if the cost exceeds 30 percent of the value of the property, you have to bring the entire property up to code and so then what we're hearing is landlords sometimes can't afford to make the changes."
Pignatelli said he will be advocating for incentives for small landlords to offset the cost of these repairs in the upcoming housing bond bill that the governor is scheduled to file.
Al Blake of Becket spoke about the Berkshire Mobile Food Pantry that he said has been an "amazing success" in several ways because it uses produce from local farmers and alleviates transportation struggles by bringing resources to the small town.
"One of the good things that came out of the pandemic is the obvious value of collaboration. I cannot say enough about that," Berkshire Grown Executive Director Margaret Moulton said.
"The only way that we have been able to do the work we're doing, getting food for the Berkshire Mobile Farmers Markets, getting those vehicles, getting help, and each of these communities is collaboration so yes, that's a great idea and it's the only way you can really happen. The second way is really happening is to government grants, and I mean big government grants."
Maryam Kamangar, community development director of Goodwill Industries of the Berkshires and Southern Vermont, said her organization had never been involved in food insecurity but after noticing a great need after the pandemic, started providing truck transportation for food pantries.
With this comes the struggle of money.
"Getting the high-quality drivers who'll do it every single week and also the gas, which the diesel price is higher, and also the mileage. Right away I applied for a grant from (Community Development Block Grants) and I just bought a brand-new truck for the food for the next five years that we'll be doing transportation of food for the whole Berkshire County that Goodwill providing," she explained.
Kamangar said she would like to see Goodwill's transportation effort take a larger role in transferring the region from food insecurity to food security.
Among many other issues brought forward was the struggle of undocumented families to obtain housing and food resources.
A report including the data presented at the summit and comments will be generated in the coming weeks.
Pignatelli cautioned attendees that a bond bill is "Monopoly money" until the administration says it is real, explaining that if a bond bill comes out in the next few weeks the Berkshires will see some good numbers but it does not mean that checks will be in hand a month later.
"We have more work to do," he said.
"But what came out of here today in my opinion was fabulous ideas, some new and innovative ideas, but continuing this collaborative conversation I think is very, very important."
Tags: affordable housing, food insecurity, Pignatelli,