Executive Spotlight: Sandra Carroll, CEO of Berkshire County Board of Realtors
PITTSFIELD — Sandra Carroll grew up around real estate because her father was a Realtor. But, Carroll had no experience in the field at all until she answered an ad seeking an executive officer for the Berkshire County Board of Realtors, the county's Realtor advocacy group.
That was in 1995, and since then, under the Pittsfield native's leadership, the association has adapted to the changes in the housing market in the Berkshires.
Last year, 1,933 total real estate transactions took place in the Berkshires, the highest number since 2004, according to the board's market watch report.
We recently met with Carroll — she's the chief executive officer now, as well as for the Berkshire County Multiple Listing Service — to talk about the association's role in representing the county's Realtors, upcoming trends in Berkshire County real estate, the county's lack of affordable housing options and the promise of the county's three federally designated opportunity zones.
Q: How did you get involved in real estate?
A: I'm actually not a Realtor. I did all the classwork for it, [but] I run the association. It's more of an oversight capacity. I don't list or sell at all. ... If I [did], it would be kind of a conflict. What I do is provide services for those who do. I just answered a blind ad 25 years ago.
Q: Why did you apply?
A: I was in banking. I started when I was really young. I was only 17 when I was a supervisor at First Aggie [Bank]. The entire department was being outsourced to Windsor Locks, Conn., and they offered me a job there and I thought, "I don't really like the job enough to go to Windsor Locks, Conn."
I applied for one job. ... I hadn't even finished being at the bank yet and it was this position. I was offered it immediately.
Q: What is the Berkshire County Board of Realtors mission?
A: I actually run two companies under one roof. There's the Realtors Association, which handles all the education, all the governance, all the board of ethics for Realtors and all the Realtor-level services. Then, there's the company that is owned by Realtors, the Multiple Listing Service. That's the database of listing.
Q: What trends do you see happening in Berkshire County real estate in 2020?
A: Our markets have been really high; by that, I mean there's been huge buyer demand in general. [But], I think the trend in Berkshire County is going to be just like it is across the state and the nation — a struggle with inventory in the price ranges of our workforce housing. That was a challenge in 2019.
Q: Why has the shortage of workforce housing here become such an issue?
A: I think it's because of our interesting demographics. ... We have three generations that are strong housing markets right now — boomers, millennials and Gen X. ... I think family dynamics have changed to increase the demand. We see a lot more single people, or singles with children, creating a need for more housing. I think it was in 2017, the largest growing segment in housing was single females. Last year, it was single males.
Q: From a Realtor point of view, how do we find more affordable housing for those who live in the Berkshires?
A: That question is coming up with the sales tax question. I think there are different ways to incentivize developers. I think that's what we're starting to look at, and we touched on it at our housing summit [in October] a little bit, that zoning in such a way and local town policies are created for the good of the community and will allow affordable housing and will allow development.
We do, in Massachusetts, have very strong local governments, and they can include certain housing types and certain developments and make it very difficult to build or to kind of create multiuse properties. We're hoping that that can be addressed as part of this affordable housing conversation.
Q: Why is this conversation important?
A: Because if we address some zoning and we address some local limitations within communities, then we're kind of poised to have developers come in and rehab some local properties that could desperately use it and could enhance a community.
We have some properties that would be great condo properties or great multifamily units. and sometimes it's difficult for developers to do that. And the last thing [we need to do] is just try and incentivize building. Right now, it's so expensive to build that in order to make your money, you have to be cost-effective. A lot of that is going to come from the state, as far as incentives and things like that.
Q: How concerned are local Realtors with Airbnb and similar services making inroads in the Berkshires?
A: They're more concerned about maintaining the ownership rights to a property and what you can do and cannot do before you purchase it. They're all about serving their clients and making sure that if a client has a desire to run their house half the year, that the city or town allows it.
Q: The Berkshires have federally designated opportunity zones in Adams, North Adams and Pittsfield where developers can receive incentives for developing properties in low-income areas. They were discussed at your housing summit. How big of a factor will those opportunity zones be if the program actually gets up and running?
A: Opportunity zones mentioned at the housing summit were one of many tools to help with revitalization efforts. ... One of the questions that we have and one of the things that we are talking to our national organization about is if we can expand our zones.
[The program] happened at a time where, I know in advocacy, [where] we missed that. We didn't have anything to do with it. We didn't have time to mobilize members. I think in hindsight that in Berkshire County, we could have have had more zones.
Q: One of the perceived drawbacks to opportunity zones is that developers are going to come in, buy property really cheap, then build things that force the residents of those areas to move elsewhere. How does that possibility concern your association?
A: We want to make sure that the housing is affordable and acceptable to all our communities. We really care about how the community is shaped and to try and protect the community as much as possible. Sometimes growth does happen in ways that aren't always beneficial.
It's so hard when a developer wants to come in and revitalize a property knowing that there's no way they can possibly make any money except by raising the rates after they do it. ... We're always kind of balancing the community investment versus the private property right. It's very difficult.
Q: What would you be doing if you weren't running the association?
A: I'd probably be in graphic arts or some kind of art someplace. ... I come from a family of artists.
Q: They must think you went off on the wrong track.
A: They like my business skill when they want to know how things work.
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