Thursday September 20, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- In the same region where an historic estate sold for $9.8 million two months ago, Berkshire County residents spend 50 percent of their income on rent. In many cases, their annual salaries are below the minimum yearly pay that’s required to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Many Berkshire home-buyers can’t afford the 10 percent down payment needed to buy a single-family home in an area where the median sale price is $180,000.

The statistics -- sobering re minders of the economic disparity that exists in Berkshire County -- were brought to light on Wednesday during a symposium on rural housing options, attended by federal, regional, state and local officials at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.

The forum, which focused on the tri-state area of Massa chusetts, Connec ticut and New York, was presented by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.

"Housing in this region is too expensive," said J. Williar Dunlaevy, the vice chairman of Berkshire Taconic’s board of directors. "The situation will get worse if we don’t react.

"The world is changing," he said. "Planning, zoning, infrastructure and our state of mind must change with it."

Elton Ogden, the president of the Berkshire Housing Development Corp., was one of four regional representatives who participated in a panel discussion on affordable housing efforts and initiatives in their communities. He referred to a Berkshire Hous ing project on Main Street in Lee where the upper floors of a commercial building are being renovated into affordable housing units.

Without trust between the building’s owners and his agency, Ogden said he doubted the project would have gone forward at all.

"Three or four times, we did extensions" on multiple purchase and sales agreements, Ogden said. "If they didn’t trust us and didn’t believe that we were going to pull this off in the end, we would have lost the building. It potentially could have been converted to condominiums or apartment rentals."

Aaron Gornstein, the under secretary of the state Depart ment of Housing and Com munity Development, took part in a discussion involving regional representatives who discussed funding opportunities for affordable housing projects.

Jennifer Dowley, the president of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, said the regional approach allowed state officials from Massa chusetts, Connecticut and New York to connect with the people "who do the work on the ground."

"Lots of representatives only know what they do in their own towns," Dawley said. "They don’t have the opportunity to meet funders on the state level face-to-face and they don’t know a lot of other people who are trying to do the same thing."

Ogden hoped the discussion at the symposium would supply him with new ideas.

"No question about it," he said. "We’re racking our brain all the time on how to do housing. Whether it’s in Pittsfield or the small communities, there’s diminishing dollars to do the work."

Keynote speaker Barbara Fields, the regional administrator for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, discussed programs that are administered by her agency that can assist affordable housing projects in the New England region. She said local advocates should encourage area nonprofits to join public-private partnerships that fund affordable-housing initiatives.

"We need all hands on deck," Fields said. "We need to think seriously about how each of us can come to the table with a different piece."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:
tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6224
On Twitter: @tonydobrow