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1Berkshire President & CEO Jonathan Butler explains new initiative to address county housing crisis

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1Berkshire

Berkshire County’s chief economic development agency has teamed up with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission on a new housing initiative. 1Berkshire President and CEO Jonathan Butler says “A Housing Vision for the Berkshires” will organize local efforts to address the county’s housing crisis while bringing new resources to the fore. Butler spoke with WAMC about the report and its recommendations.

BUTLER: The inspiration for this really predates the pandemic. Housing had been recognized in both the Berkshire Blueprint and the community economic development strategy that Regional Planning convenes as a growing priority area for the county. And in some cases, it was approaching crisis mode. The pandemic itself, obviously, has accelerated that significantly, and has truly turned housing into a full blown crisis in the Berkshires that affects really every part of the county and the whole range of the housing spectrum. So, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and 1Berkshire worked to put together a coalition of all the different stakeholders that work around housing. Certainly the full time practitioners that work on different components of housing, different economic development stakeholders in the region. We also brought in private sector representation, advocates for affordable housing, and a whole variety of different practitioners that were able to kind of participate in this group. The idea that we had was for this group to convene and come up with some synchronized strategies that we could all agree upon. Housing has a variety of different challenges and opportunities, but it had seemed like in recent years, every time opportunities for policy changes or funding opportunities came along, we had a hard time as a region speaking with one voice. And our goal with this work was to start to make some progress in doing a better job of that.

WAMC: Talk to me about the outcomes from these conversations. What exactly is laid out in this document?

So what's laid out is, it's really considered to be like a phase one of work that needs to continue until we solve this problem. What's laid out in this is basically, it's a breakdown of how different challenges within the housing ecosystem have come to exist in the Berkshires, supported with some pretty good data in the report. It's also it identifies specific barriers that need to be overcome. Some of those have to do with local and state policymaking, things like zoning and the different programs that are available to incentivize housing development. Some of that has to do with outside factors that have influenced the housing market, so things like second homeownership, Airbnb and VRBO rentals and the sharing economy and how those are taking up a bigger footprint of our housing inventory. But then also additional components of this that have created pressure on employers and started to really create major problems within our overall economic development ecosystem in the Berkshires. So the report goes into a lot of those details, and then there's actually over 60 different specific strategies that are identified that can that can help us as a region collectively make progress towards reconciling a lot of these challenges.

What are the major headlines from those 60 observations? What are the ones that really jumped out to you, Jon?

The 60 items have several different buckets that they fall into. But in general, what we're trying to do is create better access to quality, affordable housing for everyone that lives and works in the Berkshires. The pandemic itself has created tremendous downward pressure as inflation with real estate has increased. It has priced a lot of people out of quality housing, it has made it very difficult for first-time homebuyers to buy their first home, which has kept them in the rental market, which has inflated rental costs, which has put more downward pressure on populations that socioeconomically aren’t having their housing needs met now. So the 60 recommendations really address that whole spectrum of pressure that's been created and created this huge supply and demand issue in the Berkshires.

Did this conversation bring out any new ideas about yet-untapped resources for the county to draw on in addressing the housing crisis?

Yes, there's a combination of recommendations that speak to policy changes, and quite frankly, behavioral changes in how we think about housing as members of the Berkshire community, as people that live here. But there's also some specific, there's been some specific resources identified. So in the advocacy components of the report, it speaks a little bit to approaches for state programs being modified to better fit housing development in regions like the Berkshires. Some of the one size fits all state programs don't scale down well to the type of housing needs that we have in rural areas or areas that, are quite frankly, they're designed very differently than metro areas and cities and much of Eastern Massachusetts. The other component is, we've actually, what we were very adamant about with this process was that we're not just launching a report that's going to sit on the shelves. That's often stated with different things when they get released, but we wanted to be very intentional about that. So we already have, we've identified an ongoing housing practitioners group that will continue to work on the strategies recommended within this report. We secured a $150,000 earmark from the Berkshire delegation to support that work. So, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and Berkshire Housing Development Corporation are going to actually be adding staff capacity within their organizations to specifically do this work so that we have somebody owning it on a daily basis. And then beyond that, we've created a partnership with [Citizens' Housing & Planning Association], which is a statewide affordable housing agency. And what CHAPA is going to do is provide us with a lot of technical assistance on a lot of the housing challenges we have in the rental market in overcoming some of those barriers, which are multifaceted. So there's going to be more resources that come to the table. But as part of this launch, we want it to be very clear that there already are some resources that are coming in to add more fuel to do this work.

Give us a sense of the timeline, Jon. When do you think some of this work will actually be translating into on-the-ground impacts for folks in the Berkshires?

Well, I mean, we're already seeing some on-the-ground impacts. One of the interesting takeaways in this process was, I think it's really enlightened to the business community, which is the audience that 1Berkshire speaks on behalf of, of the role that they can play in this process. So as we're seeing local municipalities struggle with acceptance of different state resources and programs that incentivize affordable housing and mixed use housing development, which is badly needed in Berkshire County, employers now know they have a role to play in that. They need to show up at those planning board meetings and at those town meetings and emphasize the importance of us building housing that is suitable for all people that live and work in the Berkshires. So we've already seen some cultural changes in the way people are thinking about housing, and I think that's going to accelerate exponentially in the next couple of years. And other than that, there's some very tangible pieces of this, whether it's new energy in programs around redevelopment of housing stock for more multifamily dwellings and things like that. So we're definitely expecting to have some tangible things come out of this in the first year or two. But housing is a, it's a long term economic issue. It has to constantly evolve. You don't just do a project in housing and then the problem is solved for everyone. We have to continue to upgrade existing housing stock, we have to continue to create more affordable housing, better quality market rate housing, and in doing all those things over time, our overall housing ecosystem in the Berkshires will become much healthier. But this is one of those generational initiatives.

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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