Our Opinion: The twisting path to affordable housing


The shortage of affordable housing in Massachusetts, including the Berkshires, is a serious problem. Addressing it requires balancing the need for this housing with the legitimate concerns of communities..

A report released Tuesday in Boston concludes that restrictive zoning laws, tainted by political considerations, make it difficult to add to the inadequate affordable housing base in the state. The report was done on behalf of organizations supporting affordable housing legislation, which must be factored in when judging its conclusions. The study was focused on 100 communities in Eastern Massachusetts, but as Andre Leroux, executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, said at a Beacon Hill forum Tuesday, as quoted by the State House News Service, "Massachusetts is the fastest growing state in the Northeast, and yet our housing production has not kept up."

The report concluded that some communities actively restrict housing by both policy and practice and that zoning processes are increasingly "ad hoc" or "discretionary." An abundance of latitude can block good projects but a certain amount of discretion is needed to assure that regulations are not abused. In Great Barrington, a developer has sought to earn "mixed-use" status by designating less than 1,000 square feet of a 40-unit project as commercial. That violates the spirit of the regulations. Zoning amendments are welcome if they encourage good development and/or stymie attempts to get around the rules.

A problem in many Berkshire towns, especially in South Berkshire, is that many people who work there can't afford to live there. This restricts the tax base and deprives communities of new blood to serve on town boards, help out as volunteers, and send children to schools. Last month, Lenox town meeting voters rejected a proposal to build an affordable housing project on town-owned land. While a majority of voters approved the effort, a two-thirds approval was required. The 50 mixed-income and workforce market rate rental housing units would have been a valuable addition to the town and county.

Public discussion of the proposal exposed a disturbing stereotyping of the renters who would have lived there. It's not clear how this stigma developed but it must be countered. Restaurant workers, tradespeople, firefighters, police officers need reasonably priced housing in the towns they work in. They are the market for affordable housing. All of Berkshire County needs this housing if it is to attract businesses and build the population.

A proposal by Gov. Baker to reduce the threshold for zoning changes at the local level from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority would likely help address the mixed-use housing shortage. (This would not have applied to Lenox's town meeting vote on the proposal to donate land.) However, the cost of building is so expensive in the Berkshires and throughout Massachusetts that the state should explore ways to increase incentives that attract more projects from reputable developers. If this is accomplished, some of the concerns about affordable housing, and the stigma attached to it, could dissipate.



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