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Final Incarnation Of “At Home In Pittsfield” Passed By City Council

A stone building with a colonnade lit by lights sits in front of a brick churck and a street lamp
Josh Landes
/
WAMC
Pittsfield, Massachusetts City Hall.

A loan program designed to improve the housing stock of Pittsfield, Massachusetts has finally been accepted by the city council almost two years after its introduction.

Mayor Linda Tyer first unveiled her “At Home In Pittsfield” program back in February 2019, but the last city council rejected it that April – largely over objections about its funding source. Then a quarter million dollar plan, the money was to come from an economic development fund created by General Electric as part of the corporate giant’s settlement with the city over decades of polluting the ground and waterways. Debate raged over whether it was an appropriate use of the fund. After being reintroduced with a $500,000 price tag and the same funding source this October, Ward 4 Councilor Chris Connell slowed the inevitable at the last city council meeting on November 10th by shutting down debate with a charter objection. But Tuesday night, Tyer finally prevailed in an 8-2 vote – with Council President Peter Marchetti recusing himself due to a conflict of interest on the decision concerning his day job at a bank involved in the loan plan. The council pressed the mayor to articulate key aspects of the plan, and how it’s changed over the past two years.

“Our original proposal did have deferred loan forgiveness," explained Tyer. "We put the non-forgivable element into it because it was recommended by the city council. We still believe though that there’s a way to provide forgiveness over time so that people can acquire equity in their homes, right? So we’re in the process – part of what we’re hoping to accomplish here is that we help people gain individual personal family wealth as well as to some degree close the wealth gap.”

The program is targeted at low income areas of the city to allow homeowners to make exterior improvements that they are currently unable to invest in.

“In this program that’s presented to you this evening, someone has to be in their home for at least two years," said Tyer. "And if they take advantage of this program and they’re given funding, they have to remain in their home for at least seven years. And then the money, then it would be considered a grant and it would be forgivable. If they sell their home any time in that seven year period, there will be a pro-rated portion that has to be paid back to the city.”

Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey asked Tyer to explain the eligibility standards for the program, noting that the top level household income is set at $107,000.

“If they are within that income eligibility formula that we are using, which is actually what we have found to be the gap where they’re not low income enough to be eligible for things like block grant funding, but they don’t make enough income or they have too much debt so they can’t qualify for traditional financing," responded Tyer. "This is actually the gap that we’re trying to respond to.”

Ward 3 Councilor Nicholas Caccamo said he had hang-ups on the “first come, first serve” plan for distributing money from the program, which he said seemed unfair. Tyer said she was confident that the city could be fair in the process.

“One of the ways that we will assess an application will be by looking at whether or not the applicant might be eligible for community development block grant funding because they are in a lower income bracket than what this program is for," said the mayor.

Connell and Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi put forward final arguments against the program, which they have consistently opposed since last spring.

“This process has been flawed right from, since last year," claimed Morandi. "Since last May 28th, our council meeting where the mayor committed to the city council that she would add two city councilors and the finance director to join a planning group already in place for the purpose of exploring other funding sources for the exterior home improvement program. She made a commitment that night through that response letter back to the council, and the members that were added never met. But this group continued to meet for a year and a half and now we’re told, the last couple meetings ago, we’ve got another order coming forward to the city council requesting double that amount.”

But the broader landscape of the council has shifted significantly this term, with a shrunken conservative block unable to prevent supermajorities. Connell and Morandi were the only two to vote against the program, whose long journey through Pittsfield’s parliamentary process finally ended.

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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