Orleans Town Meeting Will Be Asked To Back Housing Initiatives

By: Ed Maroney


ORLEANS Selectmen are ready to work with the affordable housing committee on a request to town meeting to help address the community housing needs spotlighted in a recent report.

“I don't want to see us take our foot off the gas for funding,” Selectman David Currier said at the Dec. 6 board meeting.

George Meservey, director of planning and community development, and Tom Johnson, chair of the affordable housing committee, talked about the report's findings and recommendations at the meeting. Citing the document, Meservey said town's year-round population of around 6,000 is augmented by 10,600 temporary residents. The percentage of year-rounders over 65 has increased to four-tenths of the population, with that shift expected to continue.

“Fewer children, more seniors, smaller households,” Meservey said, adding that 20 percent of seniors live alone. Fourteen percent of residents have a disability, including 22 percent of seniors.

With a median household income of $65,000, which Meservey said is “very consistent with other Barnstable towns,” there are fewer middle-income households in Orleans and more than 300 people living below the poverty line.

There are “4,000 jobs in town, but only 2,700 residents who work,” he said. “Every day, we import people in to work. Half the jobs are in the service sector, and lower-paying.”

Finding places here for those people to live is tough. Meservey said the building permit value of a new home was $610,000 in 2016. Four out of five dwellings are single-family homes, and there's a relatively high number of condos (more than 700). But there's been a loss of rental properties, resulting in a very low rental vacancy rate of 3 percent.

It's not surprising then that Karen Sunnarborg, the author of the community housing study, and the affordable housing committee recommended that Orleans spur development of 100 housing units over the next decade, 85 percent as rental units. “There's a gap of 275 rental units in town,” Meservey said. Such housing would offer options for young families, downsizing seniors, and people with special needs. The remaining 15 percent of units would be for sale.

To reach that goal, the committee recommends that the town hire a housing development specialist on an as-needed basis or full-time in cooperation with neighboring towns, continue public education programs about housing needs, update the town's affordable housing trust to enable it to respond more swiftly to development opportunities, and create sustainable funding sources for all this work.

“CPC money is not enough to deal with all our housing needs,” Meservey said of funding through the Community Preservation Act. “We need to find other sources,” among them, possibly, a real estate transfer tax. He said Wellfleet wants to impose a one-half of 1 percent charge on real estate transfers. “That might produce $300,000 per year (in Orleans),” Meservey said.

Other options include an occupancy tax on seasonal rentals, and a tear-down fee that would channel the difference in value between an existing small house and a larger replacement into a housing fund.

“Development of any real estate, including affordable housing, is capital-intensive,” Johnson said. “The town and CPC have been very supportive in this mission over the years, but like George said, it's not a regular, repeatable source of funding.”

Currier said he'd “love to see a comparison of the amount of money Orleans has spent on open space acquiring things for views and how much has been spent on affordable housing. I don't think we've put enough resources into it. If you want to buy that view, that $600,000, maybe we as a town have to match that for affordable housing. Maybe we sell some of the acquired land, let someone build a huge home, and we build affordable housing.”

“I'm not looking to put myself in competition, affordable housing versus open space,” Johnson said.

Selectman Alan McClennen, who chairs the CPC committee, recalled that the town purchased $8 million in open space under the land bank program. “When we had the opportunity to switch from the land bank to the community preservation act,” he said, “for the first time we had a steady stream for historic preservation and affordable housing. In the last few years...those have been major users.”

McClennen had an idea for another way to raise fund to address housing needs.

“Maybe we should be bold here and have a housing bond issue,” he said. “(Let) the voters decide.”

The board asked Town Administrator John Kelly to confer with town counsel and the affordable housing committee regarding a town meeting article to broaden the powers of the affordable housing trust. Selectman Mefford Runyon said he wants to learn more about “possibilities where funds can be gotten. There's a variety of different approaches that may all be usable.”

“We'd love to have that discussion,” Johnson said.