LENOX — The dire shortage of affordable, workforce housing — especially in South Berkshire and specifically rentals — has multiple causes. Some are obvious, but others deserve more attention.
We all know that the real estate market has gone crazy, as locals keep exclaiming. COVID refugees from the New York and Boston metro areas have been willing to pay handsomely to secure a perch in the Berkshires, either for temporary or permanent residence, seasonally or year-round.
The supply of moderately priced homes and condos was tight even before the pandemic struck nearly two years ago. Lenox, Stockbridge and Great Barrington were the epicenters of the housing “gold rush” that followed, but other communities also were affected.
Meanwhile, affordable housing developments have encountered insurmountable obstacles all too often, especially in prosperous towns where some neighbors and other residents feared the arrival of low-income, state-subsidized renters.
Overlooked was the reality that underpaid area residents — service-sector employees and young professionals — would have flocked to apartment rentals, reasonably priced condos and “starter homes” if only they were available.
In Friday’s Eagle, a poignant letter to the editor from a Great Barrington renter addressed another issue that some towns have resolved, while others are still in the planning stages.
That rhinoceros in the room is the commercial exploitation for profit of neighborhood homes purchased by investors (often shielding their identities by forming LLCs (limited liability companies) to use as thinly disguised lodging facilities, aka “short-term rentals.”
Great Barrington, unlike Lenox, Stockbridge and Richmond, has yet to approve town bylaws to tackle and control rentals to visitors through online platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo.com.
To be sure, some of these rentals are by homeowners struggling to pay their property taxes and maintenance costs. But, others operate as a segment of the hospitality industry, competing with hard-pressed bed-and-breakfast and inn owners by offering rooms or an entire house to visitors who prefer to avoid resorts, hotels and motels and seek a home away from home, especially for family gatherings.
The Great Barrington letter writer, Kristin Grippo, and her husband, both self-employed and parents of a 2-year-old, face the loss of the apartment they have rented in a two-unit house for nine years. It appears the property is about to be renovated for an upcoming sale and potential use as a short-term rental. The family may be facing eviction in a few months.
“This is a snapshot of the affordable housing and rental crisis in our town,” Grippo wrote. “We cannot afford to continue living in Great Barrington and will be lucky if we can find an affordable house to rent or purchase in a neighboring town.”
She pointed out that “there are many more like me: An undercurrent of low- and middle-income folk who are not being heard or supported. We are teachers, farmers, veterans, therapists, artists and parents. We are often quiet because we are working to make ends meet and are overwhelmed by a system that has left us with nowhere to go.”
As Great Barrington grapples with a potential, and overdue, town bylaw to regulate short-term rentals — expected to be considered at next May’s annual town meeting — Grippo urged townspeople to “leave the hotels and B&Bs for the tourists and please consider this reality: There are working-class people in your town who are worthy of affordable places to reside. We are your friends and neighbors. Give us our rentals back.”
A powerful appeal, for sure. It reminded me of the lengthy debate in Lenox before town voters approved short-term rental regulations in November 2019.
The bylaw applies to property owners or tenants who rent all or a portion of a single-family house, apartment or condo for 31 consecutive calendar days or fewer. They also have to obtain the legally required state Department of Revenue’s certificate.
The zoning bylaw approved at a special town meeting in Lenox allows the short-term rental of an entire dwelling by right for a total of up to 75 days per calendar year, or by a zoning board special permit for an additional 35 days per year, totaling 110. Short-term rentals of up to two rooms are allowed year-round by right, as long as the owner or tenant is occupying the dwelling during the rental period.
At least 50 Lenox short-term rental properties have been registered at Town Hall, said Town Clerk Kerry Sullivan. A search on Airbnb for Christmas week turned up 55 listings, but a few of those were rooms in local inns and resorts.
Each town must come up with its own solution, as Richmond and Stockbridge also have.
But, an even more important approach is the type of mixed-income housing development now under consideration in Lenox. If approved by the town’s zoning board, 65 affordable and workforce apartments would come on the market in several years. More about that in this space next week.