LENOX — With “COVID refugees” from urban centers putting down roots in relatively tranquil outposts like the Berkshires, Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, the real estate market has been surprisingly strong, especially in those areas.
That’s according to a report on 2020 sales issued by The Warren Group, a real estate analytics firm that tracks the market month by month.
Sales of single-family homes hit a record statewide, topping out at a median $455,000 in December, up nearly 30 percent from the same month in 2019.
Available properties are limited, demand is high, the stock market has soared, retirement accounts are bulging for those fortunate enough to have them, mortgage rates are at record lows, and areas sought after by wealthy vacationers and second-home buyers are benefiting.
In several South County towns, prices for 2020 were up close to 30 percent, with Great Barrington’s median cost for a single-family home at $425,000, up from $325,000 in 2019. Luxury-home sales at the top of the market, well over $1 million, spiked in Lenox, Stockbridge (where a property sold for $6.25 million) and Egremont, among other towns.
The Berkshire County Board of Realtors tallied 76 sales over $1 million last year, compared with 27 in 2019. There were eight sales over $3 million in 2020. The downside, sad to say, is that inequality, reflected by the housing market, has widened dramatically since the coronavirus pandemic erupted nearly a year ago.
For the majority of Berkshire year-rounders, finding homes within their price range has become an even greater challenge.
Despite valiant efforts by advocates in Lenox, Williamstown, Great Barrington and other communities, development of affordable housing — also known as workforce, inclusionary or mixed-use housing — continues to be difficult because of neighborhood opposition, especially for rental projects.
“In this economy, the people who’ve been hardest hit have been in the service sector, whether they’re restaurant or hotel workers or travel industry workers,” said Tim Warren, head of The Warren Group. “The economic impact is that blue-collar and service workers are not able to pay as much in rent, but home prices are skyrocketing.”
As pointed out in a recent Eagle commentary by Williamstown Selectman Jeffrey Thomas, that college town’s “most obvious source of exclusion [is] entrenched resistance to diversifying the housing stock here, especially toward affordable units.”
Typically, homeowners seeking a strong return on their investment consider nearby affordable housing as a threat to the value of their property, he pointed out.
Nevertheless, there has been some progress in Williamstown. Since Hurricane Irene flooded out about 300 low-income residents at The Spruces, nearly 100 affordable rental units have been added or are under construction. But, resistance persists to other proposals.
Now, there’s room for optimism. Gov. Charlie Baker has signed a long-awaited “housing choice” legislation that reduces the former two-thirds requirement to a simple majority vote at town meetings for zoning changes connected to affordable housing.
Effective immediately, the new law represents “the first significant zoning reform in decades,” he stated.
In Lenox, for example, a high-profile proposal to build mixed-income rental apartments adjacent to a residential neighborhood won 58 percent of the vote at the May 2019 annual town meeting. The plan was aimed at young teachers, early career medical workers, Town Hall staffers, and restaurant and hotel employees, along with others in lower-paying service industries.
The town’s vigorous, committed Affordable Housing Trust and Committee has secured several other properties in town for single-family housing. But, Lenox still needs to take another swing at approving larger workforce housing complexes for renters, as well as buyers in areas with developable land.
In Adams, where 60 percent of residents are low- and middle-income, a potential 2019 workforce housing plan was derailed by opponents claiming that the residents would overwhelm town services, cause a crime and drug epidemic, and flood schools with students from low-income families with special needs.
Recently, a proposal for a 47-unit “live and work in town” apartment complex in Great Barrington was scuttled by a Massachusetts Land Court ruling on a technicality, favoring residents who battled against the plan.
Town officials and other residents said the new apartments would add badly needed, well-priced new housing stock to downtown. Perhaps the developer can relocate the apartment project.
Meanwhile, Great Barrington’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund Committee has approved Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity’s plan to build up to 20 mixed-income homes on town land off Route 41 in the village of Housatonic. Nearly half of the units would be for buyers in households making 80 percent or less of the area’s median income.
Still pending is a Community Development Corp. of South Berkshire plan to develop a former toxic waste site near the heart of downtown Great Barrington for 45 affordable rental apartment units.
The housing bubble for luxury properties may not burst as more people find that they can work mostly from home, provided that they have high-speed internet. High-end sales certainly benefit tax rolls in our towns.
But, whatever the future holds for a post-pandemic U.S., a top priority remains to create housing opportunities that benefit service-economy workers and their families in our diverse county that can’t, and shouldn’t, depend on the largesse of the top 10 percent.
Information from The Boston Globe was included in this commentary.