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Pittsfield Stalls On Bag Ban, Loan Program

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The Pittsfield City Council has again delayed action on two much-discussed initiatives.

Mayor Linda Tyer’s “At Home In Pittsfield” zero interest loan program emerged from subcommittee for a full council vote on its funding Tuesday night.

“The purpose of the program is to provide financial resources to people in our city who hope to make an investment in their homes for exterior home improvements,” said the mayor.

Tyer, a first-term Democrat, wanted to use the economic development fund established by Pittsfield’s settlement with General Electric to fund the $250,000 pilot. Four local lenders have signed on to the program.

“The program is directed at anyone citywide who makes no more than $87,000 a year," said Tyer. "So that’s a lot of people.”

But for Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Simonelli, a specific clause of the program that he framed as unfairly favoring two city neighborhoods proved problematic.

“Morningside and West Side can access the funds via which is being called the City At Home loan program while other homeowners have to go through or referred by a local lender," said Simonelli. "And funding for up to 20 percent of the appraised value for West Side, Morningside, but only 10 percent for all others.”=

“The intention here is to put needed resources into the neighborhoods that have the greatest number of under resourced residents, and also to encourage home ownership in both of those neighborhoods,” said Tyer.

She told Simonelli that the two neighborhoods were among the city’s oldest, with almost half of the housing stock built before World War II.

“It’s also the area where we have a lot of residents who are living at or below the poverty level, and so we wanted to provide to them a bit more resources so that they can access funds to repair a roof or replace their windows or repair their porch," said the mayor. "And so the purpose of that was to really encourage additional investment in those two particular neighborhoods.”

Simonelli characterized the distinction as “discriminatory.”

“There are many houses in my ward – I can only speak for my ward, but I can only imagine that in other wards throughout the city – that certainly would meet the same criteria but because they don’t live in what’s geographically called the West Side or the Morningside Community their funding would only be 10 percent and would have to go through a bank,” he said.

Tyer also faced pushback from councilors about using the economic development fund to support the program. While she acknowledged that the program didn’t directly create jobs as required by the rules of use for the fund, she said it met a different standard for the fund’s use: public benefit.

“In addition to addressing the neighborhood stabilization, we feel that this is an opportunity for people to have some personal prosperity," said Tyer. "It’s an opportunity for us to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods. This is a way for us to increase our tax revenue, increase the value of the homes in our neighborhood. There’s many secondary benefits to this program that don’t specifically align with creating jobs, but do definitely align with public benefit.”

Other councilors wary of using the fund suggested Tyer instead use the city’s free cash supply, which was recently bolstered by the sale of tax liens.

The council voted to refer the mayoral order back to Tyer, who said she would return to them with a new draft of the program.

The meeting ended with the tabling of a plastic bag ban proposed more than five years ago that dominated conversation at the council’s last meeting on February 26th.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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