Selectmen Make Commitment To 'Attainable' Housing

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Housing and homelessness , Community Preservation Act , Affordable housing

Two affordable units were built as part of this Main Street condominium project. FILE PHOTO

Town, Citizens Group Commit To Working Together To Address Crisis

CHATHAM – Most weekday mornings, traffic traveling east on Route 6 comes to a standstill in Dennis, where the highway narrows into a single lane. Many of the vehicles are heading here, where the occupants work but can't afford to live.

“We're becoming a bedroom town,” said Selectman Shareen Davis.

The lack of affordable housing here is not news, nor is the fact that many service workers are frozen out of the housing market, both through a lack of rentals and the high price of home ownership. Chatham's assets – its charm, its beauty, its history, its shoreline – have created a high demand for housing, especially among second homeowners. That's driven the median price of a home here to $637,500 last year, well above what's affordable, not just for workers making the median income for the area, but even for higher-earning professionals.

A coalition of residents and town officials is calling for a renewed, multipronged strategy to address both affordable and “attainable” housing, the latter a reference to helping those who make too much to qualify for affordable housing but not enough to afford local housing prices.

On Tuesday, selectmen endorsed several options being pursued by town staff, and gave the private group, informally known as the citizens initiative for housing, its blessing to continue efforts to develop a public-private partnership that could increase housing opportunities for local residents.

“Without a diverse community – young people, old people, middle people – the services that bring us enjoyment and make our quality of life are going to erode,” said Wayside Inn owner David Oppenheim.

One of the possibilities being explored by the citizens group is setting up a nonprofit to purchase low-cost housing, when it becomes available, and hold it until it can be acquired by the town, through its affordable housing trust, or other agencies. This is similar to how the town works with the private Chatham Conservation Foundation, which has purchased and held land until the town can act. Another example is how a group of business owners and residents purchased the Eldredge Garage property, helping the family clean up the land and get it ready for town acquisition.

The town's affordable housing trust has about half a million dollars, but if housing that's “somewhat reasonable” comes on the market, it's snatched up before the trust can act, said Oppenheim, a member of the citizens group.

“That's where private comes in,” he said. “Private can move as fast as anybody” and can “take advantage of an opportunity before they're missed, before they're gone.” One example, he said, was a seven-lot parcel off Middle Road that was sold at a reasonable price and subdivided into five house lots that won't likely be affordable.

“This could have been a nice neighborhood of workforce housing,” he said. Acquiring such properties – few of which exist in town – is something “the private sector can do faster, and quite frankly better, than government.”

The citizens group has been meeting for six months and includes members of the town's housing authority, the community development staff, and representatives from organizations like the Chatham Angel Fund, Monomoy Community Services and Habitat for Humanity. Jay Coburn and Ann Robinson of the Community Development Partnership have also been involved, and the group has met with Rep. Sarah Peake and Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ashe to learn about state-sponsored housing initiatives.

“The complication is that there's so much out there,” said Davis, also a member of the group. “So many ideas and concepts. And this is not a one-thing fix.”

One initiative at the state level is legislation designed to lower barriers to sustainable housing production by altering the two-thirds vote required to change zoning bylaws. The bill would allow a majority vote on changes such as increasing density, lowering lot sizes, creating mixed use, multi-family housing in village centers, adopting “smart growth” and transfer of development rights bylaws, and allowing accessory dwelling units. The planning board has proposed an accessory dwelling unit bylaw, which would allow the creation of apartments within existing dwellings as a way to create more “attainable” housing; however, it came in for heavy criticism last week and the board will assess possible changes to the measure at its Feb. 13 meeting.

Special legislation would also be required to implement another proposal of the citizens group, which would increase town's area median income (AMI) designation. This would raise the income level for qualifying for certain housing, which is usually set at 80 percent of the area median income. Some communities have raised the AMI to 100 to 200 percent. That initiative is still “a work in progress,” Davis said, and home rule legislation would not be ready for action at the May annual town meeting, though it may be ready for a special town meeting later in the year.

Nantucket used special legislation to create a housing initiative that allows the planning board to grant special permits to create smaller lots and and provide density bonuses for workforce housing, said Principal Planner Aly Sabatino. Nantucket has created 72 homeownership units through the program.

“They use a multiple tactic approach to achieve this,” she said.

Another tool Chatham is looking at includes sharing a housing coordinator with Harwich. The town previously received a $25,000 appropriation from community preservation act funds for the position, and is seeking to add another $5,000 in CPA funds this year. The coordinator would specifically focus on housing issues, providing support services and tracking housing-related programs and projects. That's something current staff have a hard time doing, said Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan.

“There are so many options out there that it's hard to keep your finger on the different priorities,” she said.

The town is also seeking $10,000 in CPA funds to update its 2013 housing production plan, which must be done every five years. The community preservation committee supported both requests Monday.

The town's affordable housing trust fund is asking for $100,000 in CPA money. Guidelines for the trust are due for an update, which is an opportunity to work with the citizens group to create a way for the trust to work with a nonprofit housing entity, by, for instance, changing income limitations, Davis said. Selectmen, who serve as the affordable housing trust board of trustees along with two other residents, will meet soon to discuss the guidelines changes further.

The housing authority oversees more than 70 units of affordable and subsidized housing, but there are hundreds of people on waiting lists, only a fraction of which are Chatham residents, said Director John Stewart. He added that the sale price of deed-restricted homes in the CHOP neighborhood are “right at the edge” of the top income levels to qualify for the program. The agency is seeking $200,000 in CPA funds to buy down the cost of those homes to keep them affordable.

The citizens group was looking for the selectmen's support before moving forward, Oppenheim said. They've met with the Cape Cod Foundation about setting up a separate nonprofit fund within that organization to accept donations. He's spoken with summer residents and people in the business community who recognize the housing problem and are interested in being part of a solution, because they see it as an investment in the community. But they want to make sure that it will be a cooperative effort.
“People are ready and willing to pursue this,” he said. “We're ready to go to get this thing set up.”

Coburn, the CEO of the Community Development Partnership, encouraged the town to pursue the tools under discussion, and said his agency is ready to provide support. They've already trained a number of Cape town officials, including Davis, in housing issues, and next week will launch the Cape Housing Advocacy Training program for residents in cooperation with the Housing Assistance Corporation.

“This really is, I think, the epitome of community preservation,” Coburn said. Cape towns have done a good job of preserving land and environmental and historic resources. “What we have not been doing is figuring out a way to hold onto our people. This is a problem all of us need to get together and work on.”

Efforts to address the housing crisis have waxed and waned over the years. “We go hot and cold as a community on affordable housing,” said former affordable housing committee and housing authority member William Bystrom. It's time to change that, said Selectman Chair Cory Metters, adding that the issue falls within the goals set by the board for the coming year and should be put on the front burner. “We need to take that vocal support and translate it into action,” he said.

Selectmen agreed to recognize the housing crisis and support the efforts of the citizens group and the CPA request set to go before town meeting in May. That allows the citizens group to move ahead and further develop ideas such as the nonprofit housing organization and special legislation, said Davis.

“There is in fact no one solution, probably never has been,” said Selectman Jeffrey Dykens, acknowledging that he's always found the issue to be “a daunting challenge.”

“We need to get real creative here,” he said.

When he first came here 45 years ago, Oppenheim said, housing was an issue. “It's not gotten better in that time,” he said. But he's optimistic about the ideas and options discussed Tuesday.

“We're not going to solve the problem,” he said, “but we can address the problem.”

“I really honestly think this is a commitment by the board,” Davis said. “This is proactive approach to a problem in town. Often times we have to be reactive and I think we need to recognize that we can take and move policy that effects great change for our town.”

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