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Healey administration 'disappointed' college dorm in North Adams won't become emergency shelter

Berkshire Towers, a dormitory at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Massachusetts. The state of Massachusetts wanted to use the building as an emergency shelter for homeless families.
Massachusetts State College Building Authority
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mscba.org
Berkshire Towers, a dormitory at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Massachusetts. The state of Massachusetts wanted to use the building as an emergency shelter for homeless families.

With Massachusetts' shelters for homeless families at capacity, according to the state, the Healey administration said it was "disappointed" Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams turned down the state's request to lease an unused dorm as temporary living space for families.

"Due to increasing arrivals to the state and increasing housing costs, we need all communities to play a role in helping to meet our state’s housing needs," Healey spokesperson Karissa Hand said in an email.

Since March, the Healey administration had "strongly advocated with [MCLA] to use this facility as an emergency assistance shelter," Hand said.

Even before Maura Healey was elected governor in 2022, the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development had been looking at vacant buildings belonging to state and non-state entities.

"Cost, location, building type, and governance of the site are all factors that influence any final decisions," Hand said.

The state is currently using a facility at Salem State University as an emergency shelter.

"In this case," Hand said, "the school was already looking to convert [or] dispose of this property and it was not part of the main campus."

At MCLA in North Adams, the state wanted to lease Berkshire Towers, a dorm currently empty due to low enrollment. The state had been in conversation with MCLA President James Birge, who was in favor of the plan. But on May 9, Birge said the college would not be leasing out the dorm.

["A]fter extensive consideration, I have decided to halt discussions about possibly using Berkshire Towers as a temporary shelter for families," Birge said in a message to the campus community.

MCLA stood to receive more than $2.5 million each year for the use of the building.

"We will continue FY24 budget conversations over the coming weeks to ensure MCLA continues providing a high-quality liberal arts education for our students despite the loss of this potential revenue," Birge said.

At the same time, Birge said he was optimistic that student enrollment at MCLA was going up and Berkshire Towers will be needed as that growth continues.

While some North Adams residents were in favor of making emergency housing available for families, others were opposed and made their concerns clear at City Council meetings and letters to the editor in several news outlets.

North Adams Mayor Jennifer Macksey, whose office said she was unavailable for an an interview, supported their concerns.

But Birge, who did not respond to an interview request, said people who were opposed to the shelter made incorrect assumptions regarding who would be moving in, who would manage the shelter, and the terms of the lease.

An editorial this week from The Berkshire Eagle raised the question of whether Birge "seemed poised to make this decision quietly with seemingly little regard for community impact or input."

"It’s reasonable to wonder," the editorial board continued, "whether the community would have known the contours of this decision before it was made if Eagle reporters Sten Spinella and Greta Jochem did not dig the story out of MCLA officials."

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."