The open forum, held at a monthly meeting of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition in North Adams, was attended by about 85 Berkshire County housing advocates and area residents.
Though the discussion was largely focused on the need for increased affordable housing in the Northern Berkshires, the lack of available housing stock for low income families is an ongoing issue throughout the region.
A hot topic of the meeting was the need to raise the minimum wage. Brad Gordon, Executive Director of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, said that in the past decade, the average rental rate in the Berkshires has increased dramatically while the minimum wage has not.
"They've gone up 53 percent and wages have remained relatively stagnant," said Gordon. "Fifty percent of renters in Berkshire County are paying in excess of 30 percent of their income towards rent."
Neighboring New York recently enacted legislation to increase the minimum wage gradually, but Massachusetts is yet to tackle the issue.
Catherine Yamamoto, head of Williamstown’s Affordable Housing Committee, said that she was struck by the level of need for affordable housing across the Berkshires, even in communities with a high median household income.
"The thing that impressed me listening to all these service providers in Berkshire County is the level of need in Berkshire County, even in a town like Williamstown where the median income is in the $70,000 range," said Yamamoto.
A special town meeting will be held on April 24th in Williamstown to determine if the town will zone conservation land for the future development of a new affordable housing complex. Williamstown has demonstrated a strengthened need for affordable housing since the majority of the Spruces Mobile Home park was destroyed in 2011 by Tropical Storm Irene.
Kathy Keeser works for the Caleb Group, a company that operates Mohawk Forest Apartments, an affordable housing complex in North Adams. Keeser said just the wait-list for subsidized housing often shuts low-income families out of finding a place to live.
"We have about 125 people on the wait list," said Keeser.
Attendees also brainstormed ways to rehabilitate vacant housing stock, and focused on the need for more public transitional assistance dollars to help individuals move out of subsidized housing. The lack of adequate public transportation in rural areas was also a topic of discussion.
Peter Kahrmann, a North Adams resident, who shared his own stories of homelessness and trials finding suitable housing, said the discussion was helpful but would like to see the discussion of affordable housing brought to a wider audience.
"Those who are really being wounded by the housing situation, by the lack of affordable housing, by the lack of support...those stories need to be brought into the foreground," said Kahrmann.
Amy Kacala, a senior planner at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said that details from the discussion will be used in developing a countywide housing assessment to further help the Berkshires meet their housing needs.
"We're doing a fair housing equity assessment where we are really going to be looking at a lot of data and analyzing housing needs across the county," said Kacala. "We really want to have a solid affordable housing through the entire county through this process.