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Housing Symposium Sparks Conversation In Berkshire Taconic Region

A housing symposium was held yesterday to address the challenges faced by communities in Eastern New York, Northwest Connecticut, and the Berkshires. WAMC’s Berkshire Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports…

The symposium hosted by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation at the Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington laid out a series of housing options for the Berkshire Taconic Region. Jennifer Dowley, President of the Foundation put the familiar problem facing those looking for housing in the area into just a few words:

It’s generally accepted that for housing to be considered affordable, rent must not consume more than 30% of an individual’s monthly income. But the figures for Berkshire County, Litchfield County, CT, and Columbia and Dutchess Counties in New York show that’s not the case.

According to the data, residents of Columbia County pay the lowest percentage of their income towards housing at an average of 44%. Litchfield County stands at a 48%, Berkshire County is at 50%, and in Dutchess County, residents on average spend 63% of their monthly income on housing.

Barbara Fields, regional administrator for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, was the keynote speaker at the event. Fields spoke to WAMC today after also meeting with stakeholders in Vermont. She said that it is important for the public sector to work with the private sector to help develop affordable housing, however, she noted that projects must be selective, as a lack of resources can often be a problem.

Fields noted programs such as low-income housing tax credits and regional planning grants that can make a difference in the area. She said that preserving existing housing is important in the region, as New England has some of the oldest homes considered affordable in the nation.

Fields mentioned one of HUD’s initiatives called the Rental Assistance Demonstration Program, which assists with the preservation and conversion of historic buildings to public or multi-family housing units.

But Jennifer Dowley pointed out that in many cases small towns like those in Berkshires, may not have the population for a large public-housing complex.

At the symposium, speakers also noted the importance of mixed-use developments in the region and housing as economic development. Regional housing representatives, as well as bankers and state housing personnel attended the event, including Massachusetts Undersecretary for Housing and Community Aaron Gornstein.

Barbara Fields says she hopes the symposium will open all parties to new discussion on how to address the area’s needs.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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