Our Opinion: Affordable housing problem in Berkshires must be addressed
Berkshire County's shortage of a decent, affordable rental housing poses a hardship for residents. Beyond that, it threatens to stall the county's economic growth.
The front page story in the Sunday, Dec. 2 Eagle by Kristin Palpini documents the problem of low incomes, high rental costs and a tight market of quality housing. This is a statewide problem that defies easy solution. However, if Berkshire County wants to attract and keep new businesses to address population loss and economic sluggishness then affordable housing must be in place to house employees of these businesses.
Housing experts say the recession of 2008 caused more people who might have bought homes to rent, straining the market. The problem is compounded in the Berkshires where new seasonable housing has been built for vacationers — an important component of the local economy — but little for renters. The Airbnb trend of renting to vacationers has also caused rents to increase. Half of all renters in the county are straining under the combination of high rents and low salaries according to a Census report.
Happily, there are communities, Pittsfield, North Adams, Great Barrington and Lenox among them, that are aggressively exploring the use of grants and financial incentives to increase their affordable housing. Organizations like the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, and the Community Development Corp. of South Berkshire are working with towns and the state to expand the market. Sadly, a state initiative to address restrictive zoning laws that was backed by Governor Baker, legislators and the business community became bogged down by amendments and stalled in the last session. If it passes in 2019 it should address antiquated restrictions that attest to the unfair stigma that has hindered the development of affordable housing. While these efforts continue, Berkshire towns must use housing regulations and health codes to crack down on landlords who let their properties decline knowing that tenants may have no better options.
The affordable housing market problem must be addressed — for the sake of renters and for the long-term future of the Berkshire economy.
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