Economically speaking, Massachusetts is nothing if not a commonwealth of contrast. There is the greater Boston area, with its overheated job market, associated housing shortages and skyrocketing real estate prices, and then there are the 26 "Gateway Cities" — including Pittsfield — whose difficulties are of an entirely different nature: vacant properties and blighted neighborhoods resulting from the departure of manufacturing industries that once sustained them.
While Boston's real estate values have increased 46 percent since 2006, for example, those in the Gateway Cities have languished and even fallen. Moreover, Community Development Block Grant aid to these cites has dropped $100 million per year since the 1980s, according to Ben Forman, one of the authors of a report issued by the MassINC Gateway Cities Institute and the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations.
In an attempt to stem the decline of neighborhoods essential to the continued viability of these cities, two legislators, state Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn and state Rep. Antonio Cabral of New Bedford have filed bills that would take a multi-pronged approach to stabilizing neighborhoods, increase the state's investment in such an effort, and coordinate various state initiatives to maximize their impact. Specifically, the proposal would double the cap of the state's Housing Development Incentive Program to $20 million, create a "spot blight rehabilitation program" that would address distressed properties before they could negatively affect surrounding neighborhoods and consider neighborhood viability when considering school construction, among other measures.
Mr. Forman of MassINC, whose report helped spur the effort, was most excited about the role of schools in the process. "More than half the state's capital spending in Gateway Cities is in school building," he told The Eagle. "Schools are the most important drivers of residential property value." A school, he added, can become the multi-purpose core of a solid, stable neighborhood. "We had to get the state away from the idea that it should build the same school everywhere," he said, citing the provision of child mental and physical health care and nighttime English language classes as functions influencing the design of a school to suit the needs of its neighborhood.
According to Mr. Forman, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer and Director of Community Development Deanna Ruffer provided input that was critical to the shaping of the final report, and should the legislation it inspired be enacted, they deserve a great deal of the credit for an initiative that will benefit distressed communities across the commonwealth.
The bill will not solve all of the Gateway Cities' problems by any means, but it represents a targeted and coordinated approach to stabilization of neighborhoods at the street level at a time when the federal government has, in Mr. Forman's words, "walked off the job." Most important, it helps to focus Beacon Hill's attention on Massachusetts' other, less high-profile housing problem — which could be argued is far more critical to the state's overall economic health than Boston's.