Berkshire Housing and Food Insecurity Summit — Berkshire Edge, 9/25/23

Community organizations collaborate to fight affordable housing crisis and food insecurity

“I think that there’s a lot of folks in the Berkshires that are property rich, but cash poor,” State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli said in a blunt assessment towards the end of the Berkshire Housing and Food Summit on Friday, September 22 at Town Hall. “I would love to see more senior housing. That will open up purchasing or renovating opportunities for young people to buy their first home. [When it comes to the Berkshire County population] we are aging. We’re older, we’re sicker, and we’re poorer. That’s the Berkshires. That’s a fact of life. If you look at the healthcare system, 70 to 80 percent are on Medicaid or MassHealth reimbursements. That means we have a lower income standard in the Berkshires.”

The event, organized by Rep. Pignatelli, included leaders of Berkshire County community organizations to discuss issues and possible solutions to problems involving a lack of affordable housing and food insecurity in Berkshire County. The event was moderated by Jim Ayres, Principal Consultant for the Haydenville-based company Strategies for Collaborative Impact & Justice.

“This is a chance to pull together people from across Berkshire County to look at the challenges around housing insecurity and food insecurity, and particularly to do that with a focus on collaboration and new ideas,” Ayres told The Berkshire Edge in an interview before the event. “I don’t think the challenges are insurmountable, but these challenges are very difficult. That is why we need everyone working together, as opposed to working in separate silos. We all need to step up and do what we can.” Both Ayres and Rep. Pignatelli estimated that more than 100 representatives from Berkshire County organizations attended the event.

“The issues in Great Barrington are no different than issues in Dalton or North Adams,” Rep. Pignatelli said in an interview with The Berkshire Edge before the event. “But how can we work better together to solve those problems? The problem with the Berkshires is that, historically, we have a lot of overlap. There are duplicative efforts looking for the same dollar. If we could have more of a collaborative effort, we could solve these problems. I think teamwork is key, and convincing the state that this is not an urban versus rural conversation. We’re not here to recognize the problems, because we already know the problems. I want to leave here with plans to solve the problems, and I think some collaborative efforts in recognizing and acknowledging that this isn’t just unique to one particular community, I think is going to be paramount.”

At the beginning of the event, Ayres briefly went over the results from a survey sent to representatives from local organizations about the challenges Berkshire County is facing regarding housing and food insecurity problems. According to the survey, Ayres said, the top common problem relating to housing and food insecurity is that the wages of workers in Berkshire County are not meeting the cost of basic needs. “The amount people are making day to day simply isn’t enough to cover basic expenses,” Ayres said. “We all know that the amount isn’t even enough to cover rent, and the prices for the freshest food have skyrocketed. It’s difficult across the state, but here in Berkshire County, it’s particularly challenging.” The minimum wage for the state is $15 an hour, having been raised at the beginning of the new year from $14.25 an hour.

The event continued with a discussion concerning four potential areas of fighting the housing crisis and food insecurity: the renovation and maintenance of existing properties, providing more resources at food pantries and food banks, tenant advocacy, and the development of new affordable units.

When it came to renovating and maintaining affordable housing, Construct Inc. Housing Director June Wolfe brought up a state program where an abandoned property is identified, turned over to a receiver, and then sold. She said that, while the program has been effective for Construct Inc. to develop affordable housing, there are several problems with the program. “It’s very slow because it has to go through the court system,” Wolfe said. “Plus, in this real estate market, [investors] are jumping on everything, so the inventory is really low. And then for it to be part of the assessment housing inventory for that particular town, it has to go through an RFP [Request For Proposals] program, which is unbelievably slow and extremely onerous.”

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