Private, public leaders come together for Berkshire Housing Summit


PITTSFIELD — On the heels of the first Berkshire Housing Summit, politicians and real estate professionals stand united around a shared vision: selling Berkshire County.

About 100 people attended last week's event, during which public and private leaders fleshed out their roles in spurring the Berkshire economy.

Jay Ash, the state's secretary for housing and economic development, attended the forum at the The Colonial Theatre. It was hosted by the Berkshire County Board of Realtors.

"In all aspects of our community, we're optimistic about where we're going," said Billy Keane, chairman of the board's Government Affairs Committee, whose role it is to connect Beacon Hill with the needs of the Berkshire housing market. "But things don't just happen."

Keane said the Berkshire Flyer, a proposed Pittsfield-to-New York City train route spearheaded by state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, is an example of a legislative effort that will boost the Berkshire economy. The prospect now "is no longer just a concept, but a reality."

This year the state budget included $100,000 to advance the idea with a subcommittee helmed by 1Berkshire and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

Keane said the housing market, and subsequently the local economy, improves when legislators are listening to the professionals on the front lines — like when the board came out against measures it feels would place undue stress on aging property owners, such as mandated presale home energy audits and scoring.

He said senior homeowners, "who may be relying on the market value of their home as their primary late-life financial asset," could see their property values slip because of "inaccurate, misleading or unrealistic energy scores."

"I am proud to say that due to the efforts of our state government affairs leadership, language that would have mandated home energy audits was removed from June's omnibus energy bill," Keane said. "Another win for homeowners across the state."

He said real estate transfer taxes similarly place "an unfair financial burden" on sellers, and in turn "a barrier to home ownership."

And then there's "the conundrum of the short-term rental." He said the short-term rentals have long been a local mainstay, but the rise of companies like AirBnb disrupted the equilibrium.

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He said the board sees both sides of the issue, upholding the property owner's right to choose while also supporting regulatory zoning strategies based on use and location rather than who the property owner is.

"At the end of the day, we wholeheartedly support a homeowner's right to use their property as they see fit," he said, "up to that boundary beyond which such use negatively impacts another's ability to do the same."

Ash said that his work and that of Realtors go hand in hand.

"You're not only in real estate, you're in economic development," he told them. "The better you are at your job, the better I look."

Ash pointed to state support for market-rate housing downtown, and for the Berkshire Innovation Center, as examples of the administration doing its part to spur the Berkshire economy. The BIC, a workforce development center, will have groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday at the William Stanley Business Park.

He also announced a new $30,000 grant to support the city's storefront improvement program, which helps businesses along Tyler Street upgrade their facades.

"Our job is to marshal the resources that we have," he said. "We love to hear what the possibilities are and to try to make those things happen."

Thanks to the help of Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer, Mayor Linda Tyer said, the city has "been very successful at nurturing market-rate housing in our downtown."

Joe Thompson, director of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, said there's been a spike in building permits in North Adams.

At the end of the program, the board presented an award to Jim McGrath, of the city's Community Development Department, for his work making Pittsfield a more beautiful place. It also honored real estate developer George Whaling for his work diversifying the Berkshire housing market.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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