Russ Allen: Is It Too Expensive To Live In Harwich?

It is time to address the elephant in Harwich’s living room, to acknowledge a very personal and private topic, difficult to assess or resolve, kept from view by elements that belie its reality. One that has not been a subject of this monthly column – until now.

Why now? Because of a sign in the Harwich Community Center, a poster resembling those that mark municipal boundaries across Massachusetts. Under the name of Harwich, it says:

“Imagine If The People Who Worked Here Could Also Afford to Live Here.”

I mentioned it in an earlier Discovering Harwich column entitled “Is Harwich Moving In The Right Direction?” Seeing it again recently had such an impact that I am devoting this column to the question “Is It Too Expensive To Live In Harwich?”

A casual observer can see that for some the answer is “no.” Many full- and part-time residents, second home owners and Snowbirds own houses that demonstrate they have the means to live here. Wealth is a relative and subjective factor, but if property is a measure of one’s financial value, the plethora of large homes, new housing developments, construction, renovation and expansion projects in Harwich are evidence that many can afford to live here comfortably.

This observation is supported by current statistics regarding the admittedly arbitrary cost of owning a home. For the Cape as a whole, the latest reported median price is $429,000, up from $419,000 a year ago, and for Harwich the average selling price is $488,000. Add to that ever-increasing costs of mortgages, property taxes, insurance and maintenance and it becomes clear that a homeowner needs substantial financial resources to reside here.

At the other extreme of the spectrum are residents whose limited financial situations causes them to avail themselves of relief opportunities offered by the town and Commonwealth as well as local charities. Persons or families at or below the poverty level, many of whom do not own their homes, require help meeting expenses such as fuel oil subsidies, assistance with grocery, medical and other expenses, and property tax relief. Senior citizens unable financially or for other reasons to remain in their residences, in order to stay in Harwich, have to seek alternative housing, which may have limited availability and high costs.

For two groups of residents in the middle being able to afford to live in Harwich is especially challenging. One is the workers we depend upon for basic services, such as employees at grocery, convenience and retail stores, restaurants, home cleaning and lawn maintenance services. For those in this group, limited hours, lack of year-round work and minimum-wage levels can lead to difficulty making ends meet. The lack of affordable and adequate housing compounds their situation, despite town government’s official commitment to increase the availability of both. A drive around East Harwich especially demonstrates that most development projects approved by town agencies are intended to house the wealthy group, while members of this group use a disproportionally large amount of their income for rent, leaving less for food, clothing, medical care, transportation, etc. Some face a real choice between squeaking by in Harwich or moving elsewhere.

The other group is retirees with limited resources who face a steady growth in the cost to live on Cape Cod. A retired couple who needs $75,000 to $100,000 of income from Social Security and a pension to live in their own home often finds that annual increases in income rarely match growth in expenses. For those whose resources are self-administered, economic and market fluctuations along with a late start in saving for retirement can also result in an insufficient level of annual income, causing the retirees to face the same difficult choice.

Clearly, for some residents it is too expensive to live in Harwich. What, then, is to be done? Is this only a problem for those most effected, or should all residents of this community participate in a response? Are there steps that our town government can take to address this issue? Or our business community, especially the real estate and construction industries? Do decisions at town meeting or by the board of selectman take these factors into account? How do we avoid the danger of treating people affected by this problem as charity cases, or of wishing them well when they have to leave, rather than address what is in fact a community issue? Is the only response the one contained in the wishful message of that poster in the community center? If it is too expensive to live in Harwich, what do we, its citizens and leaders, need to do to make living here affordable?