Harwich Housing: Opportunities Or Obstacles?

Hidden away on a cul-de-sac in Harwich Center (not Harwich Port as advertised) is the latest mega-mansion to be added to our town’s housing inventory. Described as “located near,” but actually about a mile from Saquatucket Harbor, this 5,600-square-foot luxury residence, sitting on a large tract of land, has six bedrooms, the same number of bathrooms, a “beautiful chef’s kitchen,” two (count them) master bedroom (suites?), and “state-of-the-art geothermal heating/cooling.” While one might assume it was custom designed by its eventual occupants, it was actually financed and built on speculation that someone will purchase it for its asking price of $1,850,000.

Recently, as reported in The Cape Cod Chronicle, a new and “aggressive” Housing Production Plan, required by state statute Chapter 40B and replacing that approved in October 2009, was presented to and approved by the Harwich Board of Selectmen. Its primary focus is on achieving a long-established Commonwealth goal for affordable housing, while also addressing the housing need of those who do not earn enough to purchase a residence in Harwich.

Housing is an important matter for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Cape Cod and its several towns, Harwich, its town government and its council on aging, non-profit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, and business interests such as building contractors, sub-contractors, and related personnel, financial institutions, lawyers, and real estate agencies. Adequate and affordable housing is an essential need of all people, from young families to senior citizens, full- and part-time residents to tourists and visitors. Indeed, it is among the most important challenges facing Cape Cod, its communities and citizens today.

Why, then, does it seem that little progress has been made in addressing this need in Harwich? The town’s current 5.4 percent affordable housing level has not changed significantly in recent years, while, according to Habitat for Humanity, the actual cost for its new affordable residence in West Harwich has risen to $381,000, above the median cost of other housing units.

The recently adopted Housing Production Plan reaffirms the 10 percent goal for affordable housing established in its predecessor while also addressing the need for adequate [mostly rental] housing for persons employed in services that are vital to the well-being of its residents, especially the elderly. It sets forth opportunities (if not the way) for the town to achieve those two goals. However, what are the obstacles that may prevent the implementation of the plan?

Several factors influence the quantity of affordable and adequate housing in Harwich. These include the nature and number of small mortgage loans banks will underwrite, the willingness of contractors and sub-contractors to build homes that do not result in as much work and income as mega-mansions, the ability of zoning and other regulatory boards to control the nature of construction projects undertaken in the town, the desire of real estate agencies to offer residences for sale which will not yield large commission fees, and a dependence on a property tax system that values more expensive residences. Because much of housing construction in Harwich today consists of renovating and expanding existing houses, building second homes for part-time non-residents, and erecting mega-mansions such as the one described above, the incentive to increase the percentage of affordable housing may not be strong enough to reach the plan’s 10 percent goal.

The new plan describes what needs to happen, but the plan’s implementation will be the key to its eventual success. Its adoption by the board of selectmen will not “make it so,” neither will the efforts of other agents of town government alone. If Harwich is to achieve a 10 percent level of affordable housing and create adequate residences for those required to meet the service needs of its citizens, the whole community has to commit to and be involved in that effort. Otherwise, five or 10 years from now another Housing Production Plan will be developed and approved, one that will say much the same as that adopted in 2009 and in 2017.