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Community Forum Sees Affordable Housing as Development, Jobs Issue

Community Forum Sees Affordable Housing as Development, Jobs Issue

Saturday, April 13, 2013
By By John Durkan, iBerkshires Staff
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Community members exchanged ideas of how to address affordable housing — a very hot issue right now in Williamstown — at Northern Berkshire Community Coalition's forum on Friday morning.
More than 56 percent of all Berkshire County renters spend more than 30 percent of their household incomes to pay rent and 60 percent of them pay over 50 percent. Rental prices have increased by more than half in the last decade. (See more housing facts here.)
"Right now there's about 125 [households] on the waiting list at Mohawk Forest alone," said Kathy Keeser to the packed First Baptist Church meeting room. "Every day, most of the day, the person at the front office sits there and deals with 'Can I get an application? Can I have an application?' and you know it's a constant desperation."
A lot of the potential solutions to the problem revolve around development and renovating buildings, but the land and resources are tough to come by.
"We have land in Berkshire County, but we don't have a lot in Adams and North Adams," Adams Town Administrator Jonathan Butler said. "You go to Savoy, Clarksburg, Cheshire, there's more places to do development."
The suggestion to have towns or the city to sell property for a dollar to private investors so they can bring housing up to code was also rebuffed by Butler, who explained the cost to mitigate or demolish the substandard structures would make it a pricey investment.
"We're not in the position where we can easily do that because the properties aren't worth a dollar. They have a negative value," he said.
Butler said municipalities need resources to be able to demolish structures on properties with potential, so that towns can make them "more viable for private investment," which means more incentives on a state and federal level to make the investment worth it.
Jennifer Hohn, the director of the North Adams Housing Authority, suggested the solution is not to have more public housing but to help people become self-sufficient.
"I think that actually giving them resources to get them out of public housing is a better solution to the problem," Hohn said, noting that the authority has annually applied for a grant to hire a family self-sufficiency coordinator, but hasn't received it.
Brad Gordon, executive director and staff attorney at Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, stressed the need of both affordable housing and increased wages.
"Lots of people, you know, I see them coming into my office every day, who are working diligently, working really hard and they're struggling and getting evicted multiple times, not because they're making poor decisions but because they don't have enough income," Gordon said. 
To afford an average one-bedroom apartment, an individual has to make at least $27,000 a year, or $13 an hour; a three-bedroom apartment, at least $22 an hour. Those making the $8 minimum hourly wage would have to work more than one job to afford a place to live.
Paul Schack, an attorney at Community Legal Aid, said a "living wage requirement" could be imposed so that every working family would not be in poverty.
In addition, Brad explained that the issue goes beyond housing, but a "larger economic development issue."
"If you don't have accessible affordable housing for people, you can't have really vibrant, economically healthy communities," he said.
The coalition's next meeting will address attracting primary-care physicians to North County and will start at 10 a.m. on Friday, May 10, at First Baptist Church.
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