PITTSFIELD — Berkshire County has been losing population since 1970, but new data compiled by the U.S. Postal Service suggests that trend is slowing and might even be in the early stages of reverse.
Population shifts due to the coronavirus pandemic have left the Pittsfield metro area, which includes all of Berkshire County, with the sixth highest change in net in- migration among the 926 similar areas in the country between 2019 and 2020, according to 30 million change-of-address requests compiled by the U.S. Postal Service. The Postal Service defines net change as the difference in number of in-bound change-of-address requests and out-bound requests in a metro area, compared with all residential addresses.
"It makes intuitive sense that if people are moving out of densely populated urbanized areas that the Berkshires would be a place where folks would go. I mean, why not?" said Tom Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. "A lot of New Yorkers have been coming to the Berkshires for years. They're familiar with the area and comfortable coming up here."
The data was recently analyzed by The New York Times, which reported there has been an unusually large exodus of people from major urban areas like New York and San Francisco, two regions that have a high percentage of jobs that can be done remotely even after the pandemic ends. The beneficiaries have been smaller regional metro areas, like the Berkshires, and areas that are vacation hubs.
In the Berkshires, the percentage of people moving into the county went from minus 1.4 percent in 2019 to plus 2.5 percent last year, an increase of 3.9 points, according to the Postal Service figures. Six of the seven metro areas with the highest plus migration shifts are located in the Northeast, and the top three are very close to Berkshire County. The Hudson and Kingston, N.Y. metro areas are ranked first and second followed by Torrington, Conn. in third place. Barnstable Town (Cape Cod) is ranked fourth, and Lebanon, N.H. seventh.
Although the data is intriguing, it provides more of a snapshot than a complete picture of the issue. According to The Times, not everyone files a change-of-address form when they move. Young adults making their first move out of college are mostly absent from the statistics, as are households moving to the U.S. from abroad.
Although the census is expected to release data later this spring that is supposed to tell a fuller story of U.S. population shifts due to the pandemic, Matuszko said the planning commission also has very little data to back the Postal Service's findings.
"We don't have any quantifiable numbers," said Matuszko, who has reviewed the figures. "Whatever this study looked at, Postal Service data was one source. But so far we haven't been able to find anything else."
However, sales of single-family homes in the Berkshires have been incredibly brisk in the year since the pandemic began, an indicator that people are moving to the Berkshires. According to the National Association of Realtors, the median sales price for single-family homes in the Berkshires rose 32.2 percent during the fourth quarter of 2020 on a year-over-year basis, the second largest increase among the country's metro areas during that time span.
The county's total real estate market rose 21 percent last year, according to the Berkshire County Board of Realtors, which tracks only Realtor-assisted transactions. The dollar volume for single-family homes increased 60 percent in 2020 from the previous year, to $655 million, with 2,344 total sales, the highest number since the organization began tracking those numbers 26 years ago. And the good times are still rolling. Sales of single-family homes in the Berkshires rose 26.8 percent in March on a year-over-year basis, the second-highest increase among the state's 14 counties, according to The Warren Group of Peabody, which tracks all state real estate transactions.
"The only other statistic that I know of is the housing sales data," Matuszko said. "That seems to be a strong indicator. If demand is a strong indicator that people are coming in. I've heard that folks are paying over the asking price in many instances and that indicates demand. It would make sense that it corresponds to information from this [Postal Service] study here."
Although the Berkshires have been losing population for 50 years, it wasn't considered a crucial economic development issue until 2006. Four years ago, 1Berkshire released a report examining the county's population loss that contained 18 recommendations on how to draw more people to the area, particularly those in the 22- to 40-year-old age group, where the loss has been most acute.
"Having more people is good, but if it becomes overwhelming it could be challenging," Matuszko said. "It's like anything. I'll fall back to my profession, with proper planning this could be a good thing."