Our Opinion: Home rehab program makes calling Berkshires home more viable for all

Lenox, Lee and Clarksburg are the latest Berkshire County communities to seek Community Development Block Grant money for home improvements to qualifying low- to moderate-income homeowners. Five to eight properties could be upgraded in each town annually.

Given the population retention struggles facing many rural areas like Berkshire County, it behooves communities to find ways to keep residents in their homes — including those who might be financially pinched by a roof that needs replacing or a foundation that needs fixing.

It's heartening to see that three Berkshire communities — Lenox, Lee and Clarksburg — are taking the initiative to address this by banding together to vie for federal grant money ("Lee, Lenox, Clarksburg seek block grant money for eligible homeowners," Eagle, Wednesday).

The towns are teaming up to apply for a Community Development Block Grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and distributed by the state in the form of no-interest, forgivable loans to income-eligible homeowners. Essentially, this could mean up to $40,000 per household to make repairs and upgrades to local properties — from window and roof replacements to HVAC work and lead removal. The loans would essentially be conditional grant funding disbursed by local communities, and would be deferred for 15 years and then forgiven. So long as the property isn't sold in that 15-year period, eligible households would not have to pay anything back. If the property is sold within those 15 years, the seller would have to pay back the remaining amount of the loan, which decreases yearly and at an accelerated rate for seniors.

It's an elegant community-minded investment of public funds, at once a bulwark against blight and an effort to keep it a sustainable reality for low- and moderate-income residents to call the Berkshires their home.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development gives municipalities a "score" out of 10 that reflects the need in those communities for housing available to low- and moderate-income people, which determines eligibility for the grants. Many Berkshire communities are high on this list — Lee is at 7, for example, while Clarksburg notches a 9 — including some where the need might be tracking higher than thought. Lenox scores an 8, which is up from 6 last year. Stockbridge and Monterey each score 9. As is often the case with discussions on affordable housing in the Berkshires, the need can sometimes be both high and invisible.

These needs disproportionately burden vulnerable populations such as seniors — who might live on fixed incomes and have a harder time with home maintenance upkeep — of particular importance to Berkshire County, given the accelerated graying of its population compared with the rest of the state.

We have a housing crunch in the state, and we have a population problem in the Berkshires. Taking the long view, endeavors like these could mean the difference between some community members no longer being able to call the Berkshires their home vs. ensuring more people in our communities, regardless of economic status, have the means to retain a stable and healthy household, build equity and grow a family here.

Like Lee, Lenox and Clarksburg, the initiative was also taken earlier this year by Becket, Dalton, Stockbridge and Sheffield, which partnered up to pursue the block grants for their communities. And while it ultimately died a politicized death last year before the Pittsfield City Council, The Eagle approved of a similar plan by Mayor Linda Tyer to make available city economic development funds to help households rehabilitate their properties ("Our Opinion: Tyer must not tire in pursuit of rehab scheme," Eagle, April 26, 2019).

With the political contours of the Pittsfield City Council reshaped by last year's election, perhaps it is time for Mayor Tyer to press the plan anew. What's certain is that Berkshire communities must look for ways to make it more likely for working-class households to thrive instead of leave.