It took almost two years and a last minute procedural issue that held up passage for an additional two weeks, but the City Council has finally approved Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer’s home loan program, which will use $500,000 in public funds to extend forgivable interest-free loans to qualifying city homeowners so they can make exterior improvements to their properties. The deterioration of property is a major issue in some of Pittsfield’s poorest neighborhoods, which is where the funds are intended to be spent. Once it sets in, deterioration spreads easily and can drive down housing prices, which can makes those areas receptive to crime. Any attempt to correct this trend should be welcomed.
The holdup in approving Tyer’s “At Home in Pittsfield” plan came because the $500,000 in public funds being used to finance it come from the city’s Economic Development Fund. The two councilors who voted against the measure, Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi and Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell, also opposed it for those reasons when the measure was turned down by a different council in 2019. Both councilors questioned whether extending interest-free loans from the city’s economic development fund actually qualifies as economic development. Connell believes that finding would be better spent to help attract businesses to the new Berkshire Innovation Center and towards the future development of the still mostly vacant 52-acre William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires, where the BIC is located. But when funding from the economic development fund is being used to improve housing stock and prevent deterioration, issues that make property values lower and certain neighborhoods seedier, it’s hard to see how the city of Pittsfield doesn’t receive some economic benefit from this initiative.
These interest-free loans are also forgivable, which is being done to encourage home owners to remain in their renovated dwellings, a process that can help build thriving neighborhoods, which is another way the property tax based can grow. But forgiving the loans also turns the funding into grants which in turn raises issue about government helping city residents selectively. This concern clearly helped doom Tyer’s proposal the first time.
But After the proposal was voted down last year, Tyer decided to try again, pushing the idea that helping residents invest in their homes not only builds equity and and family wealth for qualified borrowers, which is good for the city as a whole. The funding the council approved is twice the amount of funding that the same legislative body rejected last year, but Tyer said she would not come back to the panel looking for more, which is good news for those concerned that allocations from the city’s economic development fund depend on how the city’s current chief executive defines economic development. The loans will be allocated to qualifying applicants over the next two to three years and are designed to help homeowners who might not otherwise qualify for financing for repairs. The funding is slated for exterior improvements that can prevent deterioration, such as fixing porches, roofs, windows or chimneys.
Economic development is a term that is open to interpretation. As such, withdrawals from the Economic Development Fund, originally granted to the city by General Electric 20 years ago as part of the agreement that required GE to clean up PCB contamination in Pittsfield, will always be subject to scrutiny. Morandi and Connell are right to bring the issue forward for discussion; that’s what members of legislative bodies are elected to do. But in this case, the benefits provided by the allocation outweigh the amount of funding that will be used. A cleaner city will also attract investment, and any investment in the city of Pittsfield is helpful.