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Berkshire Nonprofits See Housing, Recruitment as Critical Needs
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
04:17AM / Thursday, February 22, 2024
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GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — Housing has become a critical issue that's affecting all aspects of the Berkshire economy. 
It rose to the top during conversations with state lawmakers last week at a virtual legislative town hall hosted by Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires. 
Lack of affordable housing leads to the nonprofits' other major concern — recruitment and retention issues. 
"What we hear from you as far as your biggest concerns around housing and recruitment and retention is the same issues that we hear from the for-profit sector in the county. So these are very common themes that we are facing these challenges together," said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier. "I would say for the last few weeks, it feels like I talk about all housing all the time, because we have an opportunity in front of us with the largest bond bill that we've ever had in anything, certainly around housing, and you all adding your voices to back it will be extremely important."
Gov. Maura Healey last fall filed a $4 billion Affordable Homes Bill to support new and existing public housing, create a tax credit for homeowners to increase development, and reduce barriers to housing through legislation and executive orders. The bill's goal is to create more than 40,000 homes and preserve and rehabilitate another 27,000 existing units. 
On the other hand, Healey implemented $375 million in 9C cuts statewide to nonprofits in this budget cycle in the face of falling revenues. Berkshire Theatre Group saw two of its earmarks — for wayfinding and demolition — cut in half as did the North Adams Council on Aging.
"These 9C cuts scare me a little bit. Because it predicts something that's going to happen," said state Rep. John Barrett III. "We can hopefully get some of these funds restored in in both the House and the Senate and, eventually, the governor will approve that. She may end up vetoing, that's a fear that's out there, too.
He acknowledged that this would be a tough budget year to get that money back in the House budget and the lawmakers will be probably have a better picture in the next month or so. 
"You know, when Charlie Baker left office and he sent a check out to everybody in the commonwealth that paid income tax, close to $3.4 billion. Wouldn't it be nice if we can have that $3.4 billion now?" he said. 
Moderator Thomas Bernard, president of Berkshire United Way, asked Farley-Bouvier to give a brief rundown on the budget process. She pointed out that the lawmakers needed feedback from their constituents. 
"So when the governor's budget comes out you — each of you — look at your portion of that budget, because we can't look at those however many thousands of line items fast enough to see where any problems are," she said. "And then please inform us if there's a problem there and they want to like hey, take a look at this. ...
"You're educating us and we have meetings with lots of you over the next few weeks about what you're looking for in a budget."
Barrett echoed her remarks, saying the governor "whacked" $7 million out of the budget. "See where it's gonna hit, look at the child care and look at the housing programs that are out there. All of those types of things," he said. 
"Austerity only gets you so far again, because we're worried about the people who do this work of serving the people who are in need in the in the community," said Bernard. "So this is this is really, really important."
The lawmakers frequently touched on the topic of what will work in Boston may not in the Berkshires. 
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli encouraged communities to come up with a plan to address housing in ways that can be supported within their communities. Farley-Bouvier said they should be paying attention of the governor's commission on housing and what policies and barriers it will be looking at. 
"Between now and whenever the money gets out the door, I think cities and towns and organizations have an opportunity to develop a plan," Pignatelli said. "I agree with Tricia 1,000 percent. We have a lot of public housing now that is in deplorable shape. People have moved out after 10-15-20 years, and the housing agencies don't even have enough money to change the carpet or paint the walls so somebody new can move in."
But what North Adams can support in housing may not be suitable for say, West Stockbridge, he continued. 
"As you all know, there's several 100 housing needs here in the Berkshires maybe thousands," Pignatelli said. "But I can't think of one agency or one community that wants 1,000 new units. So I've been a big advocate for sprinkling them around."
He pointed to the work the Community Development Corp. of South Berkshire has done in scattering 25 or 30 at a time since it's easier to absorb that number rather than 400 or 500 in one location. 
Nonprofit leaders also pointed to concerns over safety because of the rise of opioid use that can lead to conflict. Licensed clinicians, for example, are "less and less enthused" to provide home services. There's a need for bilingual speakers that's also being affected by slow work authorizations at the federal level. And younger workers are more apt to move as a way to raise their wages. 
"You can't blame them, because most of the people who work for all of you are not paid that well. Right? And so and then they have to afford housing and they have to afford their medical care because they have terrible insurance," said Farley-Bouvier. 
Pignatelli said free community college, of which he's been a big supporter, should be a strong factor in workforce development, particularly if the colleges offer certificate programs along with associate degrees. As well as getting away from insisting certain jobs have degrees. 
"I think hopefully that will start diminishing that student debt argument that's holding them back from achieving a decent job," he said. "So we should be exploring that possibility as well."
One nonprofit representative said raising wages to recruit new talent means the existing employees also have to be "stepped up." How do you accomplish that with limited funding? she asked. 
Bernard said another factor was the cliff effect that affects a lot of people in the nonprofit sector who are receiving public benefits. A salary hike can improve work circumstances but then they lose a child-care voucher. 
"Career advancement becomes much more fraught, because it's just hard to keep that budget balanced," he said. 
Other topics covered included the lack of public transportation, the possibility of collaborating on health insurance to bring down costs, the importance of having dedicated personnel to steer projects, joining to use political clout to spark action and collaborating with local governments. 
"On the issue of collaboration. Indeed, it's easy to play and hard to execute. But that's why Complex problems need us all to come together with a shared vision and with a plan and I think we've identified a number of issues today," said Peter Taylor, president of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, who took over halfway for Bernard. "We're only going to make headway in the Berkshires if we continue to come together and plan and execute."
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