Filling Homes, Filling Jobs
It’s time to talk about our housing landscape with regional pros
Berkshire County Board of Realtors president Cortney Dupont, left, and executive director Sandra Carroll at Lenox’s Walker House, converted into eight apartments.
In the first quarter of 2018, Berkshire County recorded over $80 million in real-estate transactions, an 18-percent increase in dollar volume over last year.
“That is a significant impact to our local economy, and having a community-wide conversation about this is critical for our future,” says Sandra Carroll, executive director of the Berkshire County Board of Realtors.
At Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre on September 20, the curtain will rise on that conversation when the Board of Realtors holds its Regional Housing Summit. State and local legislators, town leaders, housing practitioners, and the general public will gather to learn about, and discuss solutions to, the challenges faced by the region. “Our Housing Summit seeks to open a dialogue about the current state of our housing, pending legislation, and community investment that can improve all facets of our region,” says Carroll.
The program’s agenda includes presentations and panel discussions on infrastructure, workforce development, transportation, and legislation affecting housing. Carroll adds, “We believe that a strong foundation is key to our growth and have focused our efforts on infrastructure improvements.”
State Senator Adam Hinds agrees: “While we have so many positives happening in the county and region, we’re also one of the few counties that is experiencing population decline. This has impact on local budgets, school enrollment, and a whole range of things. When trying to turn the corner on these trends, we realized that our basic infrastructure isn’t in place.”
For Hinds, who serves as both vice chair of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, and as Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development, the summit’s agenda is right up his alley. Among the infrastructure projects that he and other community leaders and elected officials are focused on is transportation, and he has been instrumental in the effort to bring train service between New York City and Pittsfield. A pilot test of the Berkshire Flyer train is anticipated by the summer of 2020.
“The Berkshire Flyer is a way to take advantage of advancing technologies so folks can work remotely and we can better support the area’s third-largest industry: tourism/art/and culture,” says Hinds. The beauty of the projected transportation link is that “zero new infrastructure is needed because the tracks are already there.”
At present, over 2,000 jobs in Berkshire County go unfilled, so bringing new business, and growing existing business, is another challenge. Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash says the state “is proud to invest $13.7 million in the Berkshire Innovation Center to attract more technology employers and grow the Commonwealth’s nation-leading innovation economy.” The Innovation Center allows small companies (including advanced-manufacturing and life-sciences firms) to share the cost of equipment they may not be able to afford on their own.
As technology has made it possible for locally based businesses to have global reach, Internet accessibility has become critical in attracting new businesses—and their employees and taxpayers. To many county residents who have grown old waiting for a website to download, it has been clear for some time that this has been an issue. According to comparison and research website broadbandnow.com, only 13 percent of Berkshire County residents have access to fixed-wireless Internet service, and approximately 2,000 people in Berkshire County don’t have access even to wired Internet service. In Pittsfield, the county seat, the average download speed is 36-percent slower than the state average and 42.5 percent slower than the national average.
According to Ash, the state has been working with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to deliver high-speed Internet and envisions that “by the end of 2019, every town in the county will have high-speed Internet service.”
Real-estate sales in dollars are up, in great part driven by condominium/second-home sales, particularly in south county. The total number of transactions, however, has decreased by five percent, and residential sales are down by a significant 14 percent. So, although the second-home market is strong, it is the other end of the housing spectrum that presents another of the area’s biggest challenges. Affordable Housing Online reports that almost one-third of householders in Berkshire County are renters. People who pay more than 30 percent of their gross income are considered to be “rent overburdened.” Over 47 percent of renters in the county are in that category despite the fact that unemployment stands at a low 3.1 percent as of this writing,
To discuss the various issues surrounding this challenge, Ash will deliver the keynote address on the housing economy. He will report on the state’s efforts in stimulating economic development through programs like the MassWorks Grant Program, the Workforce Skills Cabinet, and Community Block Grants to improve housing for low- to moderate-income residents, as well as maintenance and rehabilitation projects for state-subsidized public housing.
The day will conclude with the presentation of the Berkshire Housing Hero and Berkshire Neighborhood Beautification awards, followed by a cocktail hour and networking opportunity that will allow attendees to speak directly with legislators and stakeholders.
The conference is free. To register, call the Berkshire County Board of Realtors office at 413-442-8049 or go to berkshirehousingsummit.com.