Our Opinion: Affordable housing remains a priority

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An opportunity was missed in Lenox Thursday when a proposal to build an affordable housing project on town-owned land was defeated by town meeting voters. More affordable housing is needed to attract business and new residents to the Berkshires, and it can't be confined to just a handful of communities.

While a majority of residents backed the project by a vote of 304 to 261, the votes in favor fell short of the two-thirds majority needed. Opponents voiced some legitimate concerns, but there was a distasteful element of stereotyping of renters within that opposition. The 50 mixed-income and workforce market rate rental housing units that would have been built on six acres of the 19.6-acre site would have helped address a real problem in Berkshire towns, particularly from Lenox south — the inability of many people who work in those towns to live in them because of the high housing costs.

Williamstown, which can also be a pricey community in which to live, has in contrast aggressively sought to build affordable housing within its boundaries. An example is the Highland Woods senior housing complex, which was built to replace some of the senior housing that was lost when Tropical Storm Irene flooded The Spruces in 2011.

It was at Highland Woods Tuesday that Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito praised Williamstown's housing efforts and made the case for the Baker administration's Act To Promote Housing Choices (Eagle, May 1.) The Act calls for targeted zoning reform to encourage new housing production and back the administration's goal of producing 135,000 new housing units by 2025. Significantly, the proposal would eliminate the state law requiring a two-thirds majority vote at town meeting to allow changes to local zoning bylaws, reducing the bar to a simple majority vote. Amy Jeschawitz, chairman of the Williamstown Planning Board, said elimination of the two-thirds barrier would help address community housing needs, and that provision was also backed by, among others, Select Board Vice Chairman Jeffrey Thomas, Town Manager Jason Hoch and Berkshire Housing Development Corp. President Elton Ogden.

Because of the state's interest in providing affordable housing state revenue is available for affordable housing projects and as a reward for that effort. The Highland Woods complex was built in part through state funding and Lieutenant Gov. Polito pointed out Tuesday that Williamstown's efforts to diversity housing and boost the local economy helped it earn a $250,000 state grant to assist in the construction of a needed new police station.

In a letter to The Eagle, Andrew Robitalle, Programming and Development Assistant for the Boston-based The Alliance for Business Leadership, applauded the Baker administration initiative touted by the lieutenant governor, observing that high housing costs are chasing away businesses and making it difficult for remaining businesses to attract top talent. He urged zoning reform and expanded strategies to build new affordable housing units.

"Let's follow Williamstown's lead," concluded Mr. Robitalle. That's good advice for all of Berkshire County.

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