By Jim Therrien, Berkshire Eagle Staff
PITTSFIELD -- Reacting to some discouraging affordable housing statistics, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission members expressed cynicism, frustration and some optimism when asked for status updates on their communities.
Those stats, compiled by Brad Gordon, executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, were presented during a discussion among commissioners last week. The numbers painted a grim picture of low-income residents, restrictive zoning requirements and high prices of building lots and homes driving costs beyond the reach of even some middle class families.
However, Gordon said Thursday during the discussion that he was impressed by the sense of commitment to affordable housing expressed by the community representatives. "It is obvious that you all care about this," he said.
He said Friday that those seeking to expand affordable housing "face a lot of challenges; there is not a lot of funding available, and many projects are not economically feasible."
The statistics for county cities and towns continue to be dispiriting, as they have been for a number of years. Gordon reported the poverty rate in the county is at 12 percent and average rents have increased 53 percent over the past decade.
In addition, 56 percent of county renters (comprising 30 percent of all county households) were defined as "rent burdened." That means more than 30 percent of their income goes toward rent. Of those households, nearly two thirds are "severely rent burdened," meaning more than 50 percent of income goes toward rent.
The median renter household income was $25,038, Gordon reported, compared to $68,900 for all county households -- possibly highlighting the income disparities that are a factor in the availability of affordable units.
Gordon and BRPC representatives cited the concentration of most affordable housing in lower-income and urban communities like Pittsfield, North Adams and Adams, which they said leaves little affordable housing in higher-income communities with higher property values and development costs.
They added that "affordable," in many cases also means substandard to downright deplorable.
Kyle Hanlon of North Adams, who also has served on the city Planning Board, said he's seen "a disturbing level" of substandard housing -- often owned by absentee landlords. Many times there are major, long-term issues such as sewage leaking into a basement or inadequate utilities, he said.
Hanlon added that the "inspection services are overwhelmed" in the larger communities, as they must deal with numerous rental housing violations and with the reality of how little actually changes despite the pursuit of violators.
Sheila Irvin of Pittsfield said that the actual number of affordable units available in the city has to be taken in the context of how many "you can use." Some would require major rehabilitation work to be considered acceptable housing, she said.
Commissioner James Mullen of New Marlborough and others said there have been efforts to change zoning to cluster more rental housing in village center areas, but restrictive requirements relating to lot size, frontage and other zoning issues have been the trend for decades in some towns.
The cost of creating apartments in large older homes in some South County towns also was said to be "astronomical," as was building even a modest single-family home, given high lot costs and building code requirements.
Patrick Dunlavey and Roger Bolton of Williamstown said that determined efforts to create affordable units there had produced only 16 over a 10-year period. It requires "an enormous effort for just one unit," said Bolton.
Williamstown also lost 100 mobile home units at The Spruces mobile home park to flooding during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, Dunlavey said, and could lose the last 60 park units if efforts to relocate the park from the Hoosic River floodzone to another site or other proposals to replace the affordable units fail.
Sheffield representative Rene Wood, also a Board of Health member, said she has seen a great potential for "exploitation of tenants" through high rents with so few units available. She also said a "vicious cycle" is created by the loss of young people unable to afford to live in some towns and an otherwise aging population, which in turn decreases economic activity and saps a town's vitality.
Gordon said Friday that when he arrived in his area 20 years ago, he found "absolute resistance" to the idea of expanding affordable housing in many towns, adding, "I think that view is dramatically changing."
Families, he said, have seen their children priced out of the housing market, making people more open to less restrictive zoning and other changes. "I hope this will reach a critical mass at some point," he said.
The trend, he said, has been toward communities that look more like "movie sets" than real towns.
At the state level, Gordon said, building regulations that make it "extraordinarily expensive" to build in Massachusetts should be reviewed and simplified. But he said that type of change "moves at a snail's pace."
Collaborative efforts locally could help, he said. He suggested that employers "step up because in many ways we are subsidizing them." Subsidies are needed by many, he said, because wages are not high enough to enable workers to pay high rents -- or leave them with money to spend at local businesses.
Gordon said businesses should consider setting up a fund to help subsidize affordable single- and multi-unit housing in the Berkshires
James Lovejoy of Mount Washington, a business owner, said he doubts many small companies could pay higher wages in the current economy without endangering the survival of the business. In the past, he said, lower-income residents of his town could earn a living providing services for wealthier residents, but that is also becoming more difficult without some kind of assistance.
Commissioners also cited the fact wealthier people from elsewhere move to the Berkshires in part because of the cultural and natural amenities, which are supported by most communities as an engine of economic growth. At the same time, this process unfortunately pushes land and housing prices higher, they said, and rents rise.
To reach Jim Therrien:
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On Twitter: @BE_therrien By the numbers
n 30 percent of county households pay rent
n 50 percent of renters are "burdened" renters
n 12 percent is the household poverty level
n $25,038 is median renter household income
n $31,200 is income needed for a 2-bedroom apartment
Source: Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority