Renters squeezed by high prices, low inventory in Berkshires

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The worst place that Sherry Gale has rented in Berkshire County was an apartment on Boylston Street in Pittsfield infested with bedbugs. To deal with the problem, she said, her landlord handed her a bag of poison along with these instructions: Figure it out.

Gale, 31, has been renting apartments in Pittsfield for 12 years, moving often to accommodate her growing family — she and her husband, Shaun, have four children ages 7 to 12.

The couple's search for an affordable, decent home to rent has never been easy. Gale said she has had to settle for apartments with moldy basements and broken or unsafe appliances because it's all the couple could afford. Sherry works at Bear Care Preschool and Childcare in Dalton and Shaun works at Modern Mold & Tool in Pittsfield.

"It's no joke," Sherry Gale said. The couple bought a house on Bossidy Drive in 2015, but lost it through foreclosure this summer.

"We have bad credit, but we both have jobs. Most apartments want a credit check, first, last and security, no pets, application fees," Sherry Gale said. "It is very hard to find a decent place — especially for a large family — that is affordable, even with two incomes."

Half the time, people end up renting places they can't afford: 50 percent of Berkshire renters are burdened by monthly housing costs, according to the most recently completed U.S. Census American Communities Survey. A household is considered "burdened" when rent or mortgage and utilities eat up more than 30 percent of income.

The situation has gotten worse since the Great Recession, local experts say, and is exacerbated by short-term rentals and by stagnant or falling wages. Rental housing that workers can afford has become scarce. While communities are working to increase the supply of rental housing, cost remains a problem.

A lack of housing that people can afford to rent or buy hobbles the workforce needed for a vibrant local economy. Berkshire County already is feeling this pressure through a declining population and a job vacancy rate of over 5 percent.

"It's not just folks who work in restaurants and the tourist industry that can't afford to live where they work," said Jane Ralph, executive director of Construct Inc. in Great Barrington, which provides housing support services, and coordinates affordable housing construction and management.

"It's firefighters, teachers, people at banks, and folks that have what have generally been considered pretty good jobs are being priced out of the market," Ralph said. "That becomes a quality-of life-issue for everyone."

The county's rental crunch developed over decades. It stems from many factors, according to local housing experts, including General Electric Co. pulling out of the Berkshires, expansion of the relatively low-paying tourism industry, lack of new rental housing construction, seasonal rentals and the last recession, to name a few.

Median rents in Berkshire County range from about $650 to $1,300 per month, according to the Census. The median annual household income in the county is $52,253. A family earning the median would have to spend 44 percent of their gross income on a $1,300 apartment that might or might not include utilities.

The rental housing market is so out of sync with the community's needs in Berkshire County that even the town with the lowest rent is unaffordable. Otis has the lowest median rental rate in the county — $636 a month — as well as one of the largest renting populations considered to be burdened by housing costs — 58 percent.

Taking steps

Among communities taking steps to reverse the trend and provide a diverse housing stock are Great Barrington, Lenox and Williamstown, all of which have established affordable housing trusts to help support renters and developers.

Pittsfield has special zoning to encourage lower rents, and North Adams is working on an update of its zoning map that would include space for affordable housing. Egremont is getting its first four Chapter 40B affordable housing units.

The state and federal governments have exact formulas for what qualifies as "affordable." In Massachusetts, affordability standards are maintained in state law Chapter 40B. More needs to be done to solve the area's housing crunch, housing experts say, but the problem is being better recognized in Berkshire County, and affordable housing advocates have plans for improvement.

This September, the county hosted its first Housing Summit, attended by politicians, real estate professionals and housing advocates. The goal of the event, sponsored by the Berkshire Board of Realtors, was to gather housing professionals under one roof to talk about challenges to the county's housing market.

Progress can be made, officials say, by pursuing small developments of affordable and market-rate housing aided by high-density zoning bylaws, state grants and assistance vouchers from nonprofits.

"A lot of affordable housing is being currently done with low-income tax credits — that's the primary resource available to subsidize the development," said Brad Gordon, executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority.

But small might not be beautiful, despite a saying to the contrary.

"Doing things on a smaller scale is more expensive than doing the urban development, and it's had a chilling effect in different ways," Gordon said.

As things stand, the need is plain. Gordon estimates that a person earning minimum wage would have to work 71 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the region.

In Berkshire County, about 70 percent of the housing is owner-occupied and 30 percent is rentals. Of those rentals, nearly three-fourths are located in the regional hubs of Pittsfield, North Adams and Great Barrington, according to a 2014 deep-dive study, "Housing and Neighborhoods: An Element of Sustainable Berkshires," by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

When housing has been created, it was mainly for vacationers. Since the 1980s, the Berkshires has added 5,000 seasonal units to the area.

Meanwhile, many people in the Berkshires are stuck in the difficult search of finding an affordable place to call home. But not the Gales, not any longer, at least.

Last month, the Gales moved into a home they're renting on North Street in Pittsfield — 2.5 bedrooms with utilities included for $925 a month. Gale said she lucked into getting the rental. She knew the person moving out and was able to get an interview with the landlord before he put the unit on the market.

"This apartment has been my light at the end of the tunnel," Sherry Gale said. And it's "only because I knew who lived there, [that's] really sad."

The beginning

The start of the Berkshire County rental housing affordability crisis has been pegged to different events and influences, but most people agree that a combination of low wages and a general shortage of inventory are major influences.

Ralph said the rental-affordability gap began when General Electric withdrew from Pittsfield in the 1970s and '80s, taking thousands of well-paying jobs with it. The tourism industry later emerged as a growing sector, but one that paid lower wages than manufacturing jobs.

Gordon said the rental market has been exacerbated by a fundamental shift in homebuying that was part of the fallout of the Great Recession.

"More people started renting rather than buying, and so there was a greater pressure on the rental market and it drove rental prices up, and we in Berkshire County are not immune to that," Gordon said.

Patricia Mullins, community and economic development program manager at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said the Airbnb trend — that's where people rent their homes to vacationers — has had a major impact on rents in the area. People with investment properties and second homes have more opportunities to rent homes or bedrooms to people on vacation who will pay a higher rate than residential renters.

"Owners have to make a decision on what kind of landlord they want to be," Mullins said. "Sometimes it's easier to cater to people who are on vacation."

Wendy Goodwin, president of the Rental Housing Association of Berkshire County, said the price of rent in Berkshire County isn't the problem; it's the decline in wages.

In the past 10 years, the median rent in Berkshire County has increased by $145, she said. That's a 22 percent increase, but less than the state's average increase of 28 percent.

Goodwin, owner of Leading Edge Property Management in Pittsfield, said the rental market is hard for renters, but the same is true for landlords. To recoup money, new Berkshire County developments with 30 to 50 units need to charge rents upward of $1,000 per month. For older apartments, a landlord migh still have a mortgage on the property, requiring a firm rental price that might be too high for a household just getting by. Berkshire County has an older housing stock, and the upkeep can be difficult for landlords trying to keep rents down.

"As far as landlords, if the rent is not high, if it's not affordable, then they're not able to put extra money into the property," Goodwin said. "They're just making ends meet."

The present

Locally, some communities are working to make a difference.

Lenox, known for its fine dining and entertainment, might not be the first Berkshire County community that comes to mind when thinking about affordable living. But the town has made progress in providing market-rate and less-expensive units.

Town Planner Gwen Miller said Lenox was encouraged to investigate its housing stock and address affordability when residents reported being unable to find adequate housing. People who wanted to retire and stay in Lenox couldn't find homes to size-down to, and families couldn't find larger homes in their price range, Miller said.

"We heard, for instance, of a human resource director at a very large hospitality institution who had a hard time finding a house. So, you think when people at that level are having a challenge, what about workers in other positions?" she asked.

In recent years, Lenox has established a housing trust and committee that provides income-qualified grants to people looking to move to or stay in town. Lenox is the only town in the county with a state-certified "Housing Production Plan," according to the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. An HPP, as the plan is known, is produced by a municipal committee that has analyzed the community's housing needs and developed a plan to address them. While other towns might have plans, having one that is state-certified is a bonus when applying for government awards.

The "Sawmill," a small, affordable living complex for 45 to 50 people, is being developed, and planners continue to look at zoning bylaws to support higher-density housing in designated areas of the town.

Miller said Lenox is also in touch with Habitat for Humanity and officials might use some of the town's optional lodging and hospitality tax to fund affordable housing projects.

"We still know there's a need," Miller said. "We're looking at zoning bylaws to see how we can promote all kinds of housing development — it doesn't always have to be 'affordable.' "

For many communities wanting to make a difference, creating an HPP is the first step.

The future

Though civic leaders have options to expand housing supply, they lack resources.

"It's going to take time to really catch up to that demand and it'll take the willpower to do that," Gordon said. "I think people articulate that, but the resources haven't totally been devoted to making that happen."

There are a host of groups working on that "catch-up," including the Community Development Corp. of South Berkshire, Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, Berkshire County Planning Commission and Construct Inc.

The state recently launched a Housing Choice Initiative aimed at providing grants to communities with populations less than 7,000.

More affordable housing is on the way: The Community Development Corp. of South Berkshire is developing the 100 Bridge St. and 910 Main St. projects for a total of 100 new residential units in Great Barrington. And in Lenox, they're working on Sawmill Brook, which would add 40 to 50 affordable rental units to the town's housing stock.

In Pittsfield, developer David Carver is transforming St. Mary the Morning Star Church into an apartment complex that will include 29 market-rate apartments.

Last year, Construct completed the Forest Springs project in Great Barrington, adding 11 new rental units for a variety of income levels.

"For an area of our size, there are a number of different organizations committed to providing affordable housing — there is more than enough work for all of us," said Ralph, the Constructexecutive director. "We're geographically large and so far from Boston resources that we have to rely on each other to work and get things done here."

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini on Twitter, 413-629-4621


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