LENOX — If you’re one of the relatively few Berkshire homeowners looking to sell, you’ve probably discovered buyers eager to pay top dollar, as much as 30 percent above last spring’s prices.
As reported here last week, only about 300 houses currently are on the market countywide (including just 23 in Pittsfield), compared with the typical number of 800 before the pandemic.
The region has gained national media attention as a highly desirable destination for professionals and others who can work remotely from home, either full or part time.
A factor in the shortage of homes for sale is the surge in Airbnb, VRBO and other online vacation rental properties removed from the real estate sales market. That’s a boon for travelers who prefer privacy, especially with COVID still lurking, but a setback because those houses are no longer available for purchase by residents.
Are most of the newcomers to the county buying properties for part-time use? Or is our year-round population on a most-welcome upward trajectory? That remains to be seen.
But, in Stockbridge, which has one of the county’s highest share of nonresident property owners — thanks in no small part to the allure of Stockbridge Bowl — about 50 percent of single-family houses and condos are considered to be second homes, according to Principal Assessor Michael Blay. That has been rather steady and consistent in recent years, he has stated.
On a recent drive along Prospect Hill Road/Mahkeenac Road, the “back way” between Stockbridge and Lenox, I saw a remarkable number of “land for sale” signs, as well as homes under construction, some of them quite sizable.
That demonstrates the concern that full-time residents earning Berkshire wages, especially young people in the service industries or municipal government, education and health care, are increasingly priced out of homeownership. This also affects retirees seeking to relocate from spacious family homes.
“I certainly hope that the widely reported trend regarding relocation is correct,” said Stockbridge Select Board member Roxanne McCaffrey. “I do agree about the need for an entry-level market for first-time homebuyers and an affordable market price point for older citizens who wish to downsize. Stockbridge has historically been an economically diverse community, and many of us recognize the value in keeping it that way.”
Right now, though, the trend lines are not encouraging.
For example, Zillow lists only four homes under $350,000 in Stockbridge; of the 18 houses and condos for sale, eight are priced from $995,000 to a high of $12.5 million (for the Elm Court mansion).
Of the 22 houses and condos on the market in Lenox, only three single-family homes and one condo are offered below $350,000. Seven are well above $1 million, and most of the rest are $500,000 to $1 million.
Our county’s two cities are more affordable: Pittsfield has 18 listings below $350,000 out of 23 houses available. There are 12 houses in North Adams on the market, and nearly all are $300,000 or less. But, availability is very limited, and demand is high.
You get the picture. “Workforce housing,” a term that’s coming into vogue as less “threatening” to NIMBY types than “affordable housing,” is in extremely short supply. And that’s one reason employers are desperate to find candidates for the multitude of jobs available, especially in the hospitality industry, including restaurants.
Along with high asking prices for the few homes on sale, resistance to the development of moderate-priced housing continues to hamper advocates of a real estate market hospitable to lower- and middle-income individuals and families.
There has been some progress in Williamstown, Pittsfield, Great Barrington and Lenox. But, too many affluent neighborhoods continue to look askance at proposals for more modest housing nearby.
For all the hoopla about a booming economy as the pandemic loosens its grip, the reality is a much more mixed picture — as Friday’s highly disappointing jobs report demonstrates, with 266,000 jobs added nationally in April, compared with predictions of 1 million or more. The increase for March was revised down to 770,000, from 916,000.
Here, many jobs are going unfilled for several reasons, including the lack of housing for service industry workers.
“It turns out it’s easier to put an economy into a coma than wake it up,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist for the accounting firm Grant Thornton. “It’s understandable; it’s going to take some time; you’re not just going to snap your fingers and get everyone back to work.”
Information from The New York Times was included in this commentary.