ORLEANS — About 50 townspeople came to the senior center April 11 for a community housing forum. There were housing specialists, town board chairs, and some who were actively seeking housing options for themselves.
“I haven't seen such a group since Chatham held a housing summit at Chatham Bars Inn for breakfast,” said Karen Sunnarborg, who is preparing the Orleans Community Housing Study commissioned by town meeting.
Affordable housing committee chair Tom Johnson ticked off the challenges: outside buyers willing to pay more than locals for homes, people paying a far higher percentage of income for housing than is sustainable, others forced out of the market because there's no housing in their income range, seniors who need to downsize from single-family homes, and an “acute” flight of young people from a community that has become unaffordable for them.
Johnson introduced Sunnarborg, who he said had written affordable housing plans for more than 50 communities in Massachusetts, including the majority of Barnstable County towns. She noted that, between 1990 and 2015, the number of occasional or seasonal units in Orleans grew by 35 percent while year-round units showed only 6 percent growth. During that time, all ages below 45 showed declines while those above experienced significant increases. At this rate, seniors will represent 55 percent of the local population by 2030.
“These are changes that can really alter the character of a community over time,” Sunnarborg said.
From 1989 to 2015, median household income shot up from $29,519 to $64,861. In the midst of that prosperity, 21 percent of the town's households – 600 in total – earn below $25,000. Overall, Sunnarborg said, 42 percent of households are paying too much of their income for housing.
The consultant noted a slowdown in overall development, almost all of which has focused on the seasonal/second home market. She said second homes have grown to constitute 40 percent of all dwellings. Meanwhile, she said, “modest homes are being demolished and replaced by much larger and more expensive ones.”
Rental housing is the top need, according to Sunnarborg, who said that two-bedroom units are hard to find at less than $1,200 a month. Renters also face high up-front costs such as security deposits and first- and last-month guarantees. It all adds up, she said, to a deficit of 274 affordable rental units. There is also a deficit of 500 affordable home ownership units, Sunnarborg said.
The consultant suggested that Orleans consider a goal of adding 100 units of housing over the next 10 years, with 85 percent as rentals and 15 percent for ownership, across a variety of income levels.
How to get to that goal, or one like it, was the next part of the forum. Attendees broke into small groups to work on identifying the town's greatest challenge regarding housing, goals to address it, possible locations for new housing, and what actions should be taken first. The results will be tabulated
and included in the final version of the housing study. Another public forum will be held before the report's final presentation.
Most of the groups agreed that increased housing density in the downtown area was a good course to follow, and many singled out the need for a dedicated funding source to advance housing developments quickly, without having to wait for a town meeting vote. Some called for incentives, including tax credits and permit fee reductions, for developers of affordable units. There was interest in bringing on a full-time housing affordability advocate, converting underutilized commercial properties, and the possibility of matching elderly solo owners of single-family homes with younger renters to their mutual benefit.
Within the variety of solutions was a common thread: the continuing need to educate all voters about the town's housing needs.