A housing vision for the Berkshires
A call to action: You can be part of the effort to solve the region’s housing crisis.
By Jonathan Butler
Editor’s note: Kevin Pink of the 1Berkshire Economic Development Team is co-author with Jonathan Butler of this article. Read in The Berkshire Edge.
As we transition from winter into spring (even if sometimes it feels like one step forward/one step back, brighter, warmer days are ahead), we think about new energy. Plants grow buds that turn into flowers, animals awake from hibernation, and the sun gets warmer and higher in the sky every day. This is a season for opportunities, fitting for the launch of new initiatives like A Housing Vision for the Berkshires.
In a previous Berkshire Edge article on the emerging housing crisis in the Berkshires, we listed the reasons that were leading to a lack of large-scale production of new housing units: the long decline in regional population, inflexible zoning, burdensome state regulations, inadequate public funding support, and neighborhood resistance to in-fill housing. At the same time, some homes have become professional offices, some have left the residential market and become vacation rentals, and others were left to fall into disrepair. The COVID pandemic brought more problems: rising construction materials and labor costs, plus an influx of new residents who relocated to the Berkshires and are likely to stay.
This housing challenge affects our entire Berkshires region, not just some far-off town on the border of Vermont or Connecticut. Those affected are your family, friends, neighbors and perhaps you yourself. Lack of supply combined with increased demand has raised the costs of nearly every aspect of the housing market. Home sales prices and rents are becoming real obstacles to people living in the region. This is particularly true for lower-income and middle-income families and individuals whose incomes have struggled to keep pace with rising costs.
As the costs of larger houses (into which families might move as they grow out of their smaller houses or apartments) rise, families in starter homes stay in them longer. This downward pressure means that renters who want to buy their first houses have a harder time, which then limits options for other renters, and so on. It also contributes to region-wide housing insecurity and homelessness. It’s almost certain that someone you know is feeling this pressure.
Housing pressure has another, less obvious, effect in our local economy—it limits recruiting possibilities for local businesses. Qualified candidates moving from elsewhere – within the Berkshires or from outside the region – often struggle to find housing after securing a job, or struggle to find the kind of housing they would like to live in long-term, sometimes causing them to leave the region. The housing crisis robs the region of talented members of the workforce, fellow taxpayers and voters, and neighbors.
It’s easy to identify the symptoms, but determining the causes is just as important. To this end, in the fall of 2020 the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and 1Berkshire to convene a working group of housing practitioners. Members of this group represented municipalities, industry leaders, community organizations, and housing development organizations from across the Berkshires. Their charge was to identify the root causes of the region’s housing crisis and also to develop near-term and longer-term strategies to address them. In the course of their work, they brought key stakeholders from throughout the Berkshires into focus groups and researched best practices in similar communities.
The working group recently released A Housing Vision for the Berkshires. This document identifies nearly sixty strategies organized into the broad categories of Education, Advocacy, Financial Resources, and Building a Supportive Environment.
This Vision, comprehensive as it is, is merely the beginning; it will continue and expand. The strategic, collaborative, and inclusive process that the working group developed will now focus on ways to activate the proposed solutions and on even more new opportunities. Implementing nearly sixty solutions sounds like a lot of work, but it is achievable work for many hands. We can accomplish these critical changes to create safer, more desirable housing, from affordable to middle market to market rate, and from rentals to single-family detached houses.
We now ask you to be part of this effort. A Housing Vision for the Berkshires ends with a call that we now share with you, our reader: Lend your ear, hand, time, voice, vote, and open mind to the process. Learn about why it’s so difficult to get funding to build housing where you live. Share your lived experience in finding housing—your struggles and successes—to help find solutions for those who need them most. Advocate for changes in regulations, from your town meeting to the state house, that make it easier to build housing in the Berkshires. Speak up in favor of housing development in public forums and in your own circles. Keep an open mind toward efforts that make it easier to build more housing in your community. The Berkshires is an incredible place—not just to live, but to thrive. Let’s work together to help more of our neighbors realize that dream- now, and for the future.