Affordable housing is emerging as the most serious issue facing Cape towns. It's the chief topic of the June 23 session of the Cape Cod Commission's One Cape Summit, where experts will weigh in on the impact the lack of housing is having, and will have, on the region's economy.
Understanding the impact of the lack of housing that's affordable to workers in the Cape's dominant industries – retail, construction, services – isn't hard. It's pretty clear that the demand for second homes as well as speculation has driven the costs beyond the reach of the folks who are generally fall under the “workforce” category. Finding realistic solutions, however, poses a massive challenge, one that individual communities – especially the Cape's smaller towns like Chatham, Orleans and Harwich – can't possibly tackle alone.
Perhaps a regional solution will grow out of the Cape Cod Commission's efforts, but more likely it will be up to local towns to work together. A good first step was broached at this week's Harwich Board of Selectmen's meeting. The housing production plan recently approved by the selectmen calls for hiring a housing coordinator, but at the meeting, Housing Committee Chairman Arthur Bodin suggested sharing the position with another town. Given the close ties between the communities, it makes sense that Chatham and Orleans share the position with Harwich.
Like Harwich, Chatham and Orleans have no one currently on staff whose job it is to help coordinate and develop affordable housing. Chatham and Harwich already share a housing authority director, and of course together form the Monomoy Regional School District, which also has a part to play in the housing issue (check out our story about homeless students in the April 26 edition). All three towns share Pleasant Bay, and have basically the same issues regarding workforce housing, both year-round and seasonal.
There's a public purpose to be served by working to increase affordable housing. As we may yet see this summer, a lack of workers – in this case foreign workers unable to get visas – can severely hamper the operation of key businesses that serve our region's visitors, such as restaurants, hotels and retail shops. The very service economy that caters to the second homeowners – landscapers, tradesmen, contractors – can't get the help they need to do the work that's available. Taken to its extreme, situations like this can lead to those second homeowners deciding this isn't where they want to be, bursting the speculatory bubble.
The towns have community preservation funds available to establish a shared housing coordinator position, and frankly could fold the job into their respective community development departments with little tax rate impact. Affordable housing strategies that work in one of these towns will likely work in the others, and pooling resources, including possible land or redevelopment strategies, could actually put a dent in the problem.