Pittsfield

Panel backs mayor's plan to help homeowners spruce up exteriors

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PITTSFIELD — Mayor Linda Tyer's plan to help homeowners with exterior renovations hasn't even launched, and City Hall already is fielding calls from interested participants.

"It's clear that the proposal has resonated with the community," said Deanna Ruffer, the city's community development director, citing an influx of calls to her office.

On Tuesday, the City Council Committee on Community and Economic Development voted unanimously to recommend a proposal from Tyer to use $250,000 from the city's Economic Development Fund to start the program, through which the city would partner with local banks to give homeowners zero-interest loans as they spruce up their exteriors.

Councilor At Large Pete White said he himself was strapped for cash a few years back and he's happy to see that the city might be lending a hand in this way.

"This is a great tool to add to the toolbox," he said.

The appropriation request will go to the full council for review.

The program, called At Home in Pittsfield, would help residents who make no more than $87,480 annually and who own — or are looking to own — owner-occupied residences with no more than four residential units. The program would be available citywide, though residents who live outside the West Side and Morningside communities would need to refinance their homes to leverage the loan.

Homeowners in the West Side and Morningside neighborhoods could receive up to 20 percent of the home's post-project value, or a maximum of $30,000. Residents outside those neighbors would be eligible for up to 10 percent of the property's value after the project, or up to $20,000.

Slouching homes in the city serve as a barrier to economic development and community stabilization, Tyer told councilors.

She and Ruffer say the program is meant to fill a gap in community support for homeowners. Typically, Ruffer said, funding is available for interior code violations and safety hazards, and money is available to only those who fall under the lower income brackets.

Ruffer said the city also hopes to incentivize homeownership through the program, as well as stimulate the real estate market.

Alisa Costa, initiative director for Working Cities Pittsfield, said she hears a lot from residents about deteriorating housing, and the program proposed would help fill "the gap between aspirations and resources."

"Which we need to do more of in Pittsfield," she said.

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Carolyn Valli, executive director of Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, said her agency gets calls every day from homeowners struggling to afford something like a new roof. She said the nonprofit would work with the city to help direct the money, and stretch it.

Councilor At Large Melissa Mazzeo, who is not on the committee but came to ask questions, wanted to know about whether this proposed $250,000 disbursement would be a one-time thing, and if city officials had explored other revenue sources.

Ruffer said the money would fund a one-year pilot that she could refer to in future years as the city pursues outside dollars. She said it's likely that she will be back requesting more money, and to that point, Valli floated the idea of using marijuana taxes to help fund the program.

The city's Economic Development Fund was created under a PCB cleanup agreement with General Electric Co. The fund began with $10 million, and there is $3,229,237 available.

Repaid loans also would help repopulate the program's funding pool, Tyer has said. Ruffer told councilors Tuesday that her department also will consider some level of loan forgiveness to incentivize participants to remain in the neighborhood and continue investing in their properties.

As homeowners invest, councilors noted, their taxes will go up.

Lenders collaborating on the project include Greylock Federal Credit Union, Lee Bank, Pittsfield Cooperative Bank and Berkshire Bank.

Lori Kiely, of Berkshire Bank, said her company sees many people looking to buy a home but the numbers simply don't add up. A little help through a program like this, she said, would open the door to those for whom homeownership would otherwise be cost-prohibitive.

"We're really looking forward to helping our neighbors," said Tara McCluskey, of Greylock Federal Credit Union.

Richard Whalen, of Pittsfield Cooperative Bank, said "a lot of the time our hands are tied."

Paula Lewis, of Lee Bank, said she works with people to get funding for home repairs, but more often what's available must be used toward home interiors and toward code and safety violations.

"There's definitely a gap in financing out there," she said.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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