Gateway City challenges: Pittsfield mayor asks lawmakers for help aiding neighborhoods

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PITTSFIELD — Next month, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer expects to roll out a new approach to revitalizing her city's struggling neighborhoods. But in Boston last week, the mayor was playing the long game.

In remarks at the Statehouse, Tyer urged lawmakers who represent fellow "Gateway" cities to shape tools that can help blighted neighborhoods undermined by economic declines and population losses.

Tyer joined with the nonpartisan MassInc research group to highlight recommendations in a new report, "Building Communities of Promise and Possibility."

The study depicts a worsening picture for housing in the state's 11 Gateway Cities — a designation given a decade ago to mid-sized communities that face "stubborn social and economic challenges." Without new investments, the report says, neighborhoods risk further decay in their housing that can bring further declines.

While Boston's prospects continue to rise, spurring job growth and improved housing stocks, municipal leaders in places like Pittsfield, Holyoke and Fall River are fighting to prevent neighborhood declines.

"We are all struggling with the exact same problem," Tyer said Monday, "trying to find a variety of ways to help us stabilize our neighborhoods, so we don't see further declines."

At at breakfast meeting Wednesday, Tyer highlighted recommendations from the MassInc report that seek to give local leaders new tools to combat blight.

One is to establish a commission that would look at less costly ways to bring old structures up to code. Another is to redefine a state law — Chapter 121A — to enable municipalities to overcome legal and other hurdles that get in the way of fixing distressed properties.

The overall goal is to save failing neighborhoods — in a region where winters can quickly destroy unheated, vacant wood-frame houses. And do that before it's too late.

"I said to the legislators, `We need your help. We're counting on you to help us to design new methods,'" Tyer said.

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Ben Forman, MassInc's research director, credits Tyer with helping early on to identify the issues that went on to be explored in the report released last week. Tyer and Deanna L. Ruffer, Pittsfield's director of community development, served on the study's working group.

"Pittsfield has played a really big role in this," Forman said.

Among other things, the study found a growing economic divide in the state. While Boston prospers, vacancy rates are rising in many Gateway Cities.

Pittsfield is one of several communities where more than one in 10 housing units are empty. The city's vacancy rate rose from 8 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2017. At the same time, the median price per square foot for housing fell 10 percent in Pittsfield between 2006 and 2018.

Meantime, the number of state residents living in Census tracts where poverty rates top 40 percent has doubled since 2000, the report says. In Pittsfield, that describes life for 3,423 people as of 2017.

At the same time, local leaders who seek to revitalize neighborhoods have lost more than $100 million a year in federal Community Development Block Grants. That setback comes on top of the state's tax-limiting law and declines in non-school state aid. According to the study, Gateway Cities are left to patch budgets together with scant money available to invest in neighborhood renewal.

The report, co-produced with the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, identifies steps that can be taken to stabilize areas and head off the emergence of "zombie" houses that fall into ruin and drag down neighborhoods.

"If we don't improve them, the market gets weaker," Forman said. "The mayors are right to try to preserve that housing stock as much as they can."

Forman said he believes Pittsfield is on a path to improvements. "I think the city's really working hard on that and I think we'll get there," he said.

But for representatives and leaders of Gateway Cities as a whole, it will take a concerted push to secure new tools, he predicts. "The whole thing is a political problem and [involves] drawing needs to outside of Boston."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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