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New report highlights Berkshire County housing crisis

The Berkshires are in a housing crisis — according to a report released earlier this week by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and 1Berkshire, a group looking closely at critical housing issues in the county.

Tom Matuszko is the executive director of the commission. He said he was generally not surprised by the findings, though one thing did stand out.

Tom Matuszko, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission: The housing development community wasn't as strong as some of the other sectors in the Berkshires. There's a strong environmental and natural resource group in the Berkshires, but the housing developer community, the networking community wasn't that strong, which is a little bit surprising to me. I think that more recently what's been surprising to me has been the dramatic increases in the housing costs. Some of the stories that we hear about people paying cash $50,000 to $100,000 over the asking price and homes being on the market for only a day, that surprises me.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: At the same time that that surprises me, too, does that just further create a wider divide between those who have and those who have not? Does that play into this housing crisis at all?

Well, yes. And I think you're raised a very good point. From our perspective, as a regional planning agency, that's one of the main interests of mine, is making sure that we have vibrant communities that can accommodate all types of people from all income levels. And we don't just want to be a place, in my opinion, for the wealthy who can afford those properties.

From an outsider's view, the Berkshires are full of those gorgeous mountains and vistas. Tourists flock there to see them, to spend time there. But does that rural infrastructure, roads, power lines, a lot of vistas, contribute to this housing inadequacy?

Well, it does in some ways. We don't have a lot of the infrastructure necessary to support high density housing. So not all our communities have public water or public sewer. I think the longer trend in the Berkshires has been some longer economic decline over the past several decades. One reason was related to the pullout of the G.E. manufacturing plant in Pittsfield. So economically, we're still recovering from that. And that has had somewhat of an impact on the overall housing development scheme as well.

I've seen headlines elsewhere across the state that talk about a housing crisis. Is this Berkshire County housing crisis different in some way than what others are seeing?

It's a little bit different, yes. Our housing stock in the Berkshires is very old. A lot of it was built in the mid-1900s, so that in and of itself presents a challenge in trying to either rehab those houses or turn them into duplexes. That's different than the eastern part of the state, which I think a lot of it is new development that's going on there. And our issues, too, are that our communities are relatively small with not a lot of professional staff. So, I think we have a capacity issue related to working on housing projects from a municipal standpoint.

So, the issues that folks are finding when they need to find a house, an apartment, somewhere to live, what typically are they encountering that is a hurdle, a barrier to getting into somewhere to live?

Well, there just aren't units, and that's really the biggest barrier. There just aren't units of all types. The overall issue is a lack of units and then being able to afford them. More recently over these last two years, it's not only in the Berkshires, but in a lot of rural areas (there) has been a dramatic increase in the cost of housing, as the urban exodus related to COVID has pushed people further and further away from the urban areas.

What's next? How does this situation turn around?

Well, part of our approach is to bring the awareness that we're in a housing crisis in the Berkshires. So, our first and one of our greatest level of efforts immediately is to do things like we're doing right now, is making sure that folks know that we're in a crisis and try to change the image of housing. There's an image of the Berkshires as being this pristine, rural area, but it's also a living community and it needs appropriate housing development to be able to support the workers, (to) support our cultural institutions. And then work systematically with municipalities, with developers, nonprofit and for-profit developers, to really get programs and projects built.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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