Secretary Kennealy, seen with BRPC Chairman Kyle Hanlon, was the keynote speaker at the annual dinner.
DALTON, Mass. — Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Michael Kennealy ticked off a long list initiatives of the Baker administration that included investments in broadband, education, workforce development and transportation.
And while there's still work needed in these areas, the administration is looking at what Kennealy is describing as a "major threat to the economy" statewide: Housing.
"So since 2010, we've added 300,000 people, 400,000 jobs, and less than 100,000 housing units," Kennealy told the annual dinner of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and Berkshire County Selectmen's Association on Thursday.
It was a topic that took him by surprise when it came up at nearly every breakout table at the nine economic development sessions held across the state this past year.
"When we go to these economic development engagement sessions, I'm always amazed by how much housing is a topic," he said. "Folks look at housing as not only the need for new housing for their communities, but housing as an economic development tool, and helping them revitalize downtowns by creating more housing has been a common theme for us."
Gov. Charlie Baker last year signed a $1.8 billion affordable housing bill and the administration has been lobbying hard on a bill before the Legislature that would lower the threshold for most zoning bylaw amendments related to housing from its current two-thirds "supermajority" to a simple majority vote. Kennealy and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito had touted the bill this past April at Highland Woods affordable housing project in Williamstown.
The number of units being built are half that of nearly a generation ago, Kennealy said, while at the same time the state's population and economy is growing. The state's unemployment rate has stayed at 2.9 percent with some 43,600 jobs added in the last year, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Since the year 2000, home values in Massachusetts have gone up 75 percent, rent has gone up 75 percent," Kennealy said. "In 1980, the state was about at the national average for home prices. And now we're number three. And in terms of rent for a two-bedroom apartment, we are number one."
Today more than half of the citizens making less than $100,000 are using more than half their income just on housing.
"So it's a dramatic impact. And it just ripples all throughout our state. Through all of our communities," Kennealy said. "It impacts the aspirations of our citizens and our businesses."
While the housing bond bill has "unlocked" 11,000 units across the state, the government can only do so much, he said. "Going back to 1920, and zoning decisions in Massachusetts is done by a local legislative body. And the vote has to be two-thirds. We think it's an enormous impediment to creating more housing."
The "relatively modest change" of removing the two-thirds vote will unlock doors to private investment, he believes.
Mayor Thomas Bernard asked what the state could do to help communities like North Adams with older housing stock and declining population.
"We do have out here a slightly different problem, which is greater housing stock, because of lack of a loss of population," he said. "Our priority, in some ways isn't new housing, it's rehab and innovation of the units that we we already have."
Kennealy acknowledged that rehabilitation was somewhat different but thought the investments being made in innovation will drive job growth and population. The housing bond could also provide some tools for rehabilitation, he said.
The secretary also spoke to the economic development plan that will come out of the nine listening sessions this year. He expected to have a report before the end of the year that will be formed into legislation in January. It's a requirement by statute that the administration have a plan in place each term.
"I think looking at regional economies is a good way to go," he said.
The state will also look to streamline access to programs for grant funding and aid.
"We have 50 different programs that allow communities to access dollars and other resources to help them realize their ambitions," Kennealy said. "And I think it may just be a little bit too complex. So one thing on our mind is making ourselves streamlined programs, and making it easier to work with."
Small companies also tend to need more help than larger concerns and often don't know where to look, he said. "Related to that is making sure we have direct outreach to companies really trying to make sure that we're on the front lines of talking to companies in every region of the state and understanding their growth aspirations."
Kennealy also lightly touched on second homes and micro apartments, broadband's "middle mile" and negotiating power regarding cable companies in response to questions.
Prior to the dinner, held at the Stationery Factory and catered by Ozzie's Steak and Eggs Restaurant of Hinsdale, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission held its annual meeting during which it re-elected representatives and set out staff goals for the coming year.
BRPC Executive Director Tom Matuszko updates the gathering on the work of the commission.
BRPC Executive Director Thomas Matuszko spoke at the dinner about some of the commission's work on behalf of municipalities in the last year.
Mount Washington Selectman James Lovejoy, president of the Massachusetts Selectmen's Association, presented a plaque to Bruce Turner of Egremont, who spent 20 years as a selectman and six years on the school committee. Turner also is a past vice president and member of the state executive committee.
"I think that's a tremendous level of service," said Lovejoy. "And I really appreciate Bruce. He's been an inspiration to me over the years and a good neighbor."
"I started doing this back in the early '80s, believe it or not, when I was just a kid," Turner said. "So this has seen a lot of evolution. A lot of things changed in Berkshire County, and looking forward to what's going on in the future. So good luck to you all."
Matuszko presented Kristine Hazzard, former president of the Berkshire United Way, with the Charles Kusik Award for outstanding contributions to Berkshire County. Kusik, a Richmond chicken farmer who had fled the Nazis, had been one of the originators in the development of zoning bylaws and ordinances in the county.
"[Hazzard] was a president and CEO there for many years, and was very instrumental in transforming the United Way to really try to meet the needs of Berkshire County, and really try to figure out what the community needed, and then try to structure the programs to meet those needs," Matuszko said.
Hazzard said she thought it was a mistake when Matuszko contacted her about the award but recalled how her first initiative was working with the BRPC to create that first set of benchmarks to better serve the community's needs.
"I'm proud that that's the first new partnership Berkshire United Way had was with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. And it was to create this baseline report in 2009, that told the story of Berkshire County and the challenges our families were having. ... So thank you for the award, but thank you really for the opportunity."
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