The Cape, and the Chatham-Harwich-Orleans region in particular, face an increasingly acute crisis. Middle class working people can't afford to live here. As Chatham Housing Authority Chairman Alan Mowry told the board of selectmen last week, the town, and the Cape, need to decide if it's going to be a destination, or a community.
Right now it's heading more toward the former and is less and less the latter. This is no secret; The second-home market and other factors have been driving up real estate prices for years, elbowing out workers and families, many of whom have fled the Cape for places where housing prices are more manageable. Efforts to increase affordable housing have run into similar problems: the high cost of land is making it difficult to find locations to build any meaningful volume of housing that serves the needs of the region's workers and professionals, leading more and more to importing the people who make our communities run.
A group of Chatham residents calling themselves the citizens initiative for housing hopes to at least make a stab at easing the situation through a number of efforts spelled out for selectmen last week. They're calling for a public-private partnership to accomplish a number of goals that, together, could mean access to both traditional affordable as well as “attainable” housing – targeted to those who don't qualify for affordable housing programs but don't make enough to buy a $637,000 home, the median price in Chatham – for many more local residents. We particularly like their idea of a nonprofit that can swoop in and buy houses or properties that would fit these categories and hold on to them until the town or other agency can step in, either through its affordable housing trust fund or other mechanism. Raising the area median income maximum, which requires special legislation, could also make affordable housing programs accessible to more people.
But this group can't do it alone. A number of town-sponsored initiatives are critical to addressing housing issues. Paramount among these is establishing a housing coordinator; officials in Chatham and Harwich have been discussing a shared position for a while, and now is the time to implement it. We urge support of community preservation funding for the position that will go before May's annual town meeting, as well as other CPA articles requesting money for the affordable housing trust fund, updating of Chatham's 2013 housing production plan and to buy down the cost of already deed-restricted affordable properties to make them even more affordable.
Finally, some version of the proposed accessory unit bylaw is a must. Safeguards are necessary to prevent overdevelopment and excessive density, but these are doable and the specter of a second house on every residential property shouldn't get in the way of a common-sense approach to allowing apartments in private homes, especially since so many of Chatham's houses have extremely low occupancy.
It could take years for housing conditions to change, but there's nothing more important than retaining the people that make a town a community. It's something in which every sector – business, government, civic, education, nonprofits – as an interest and a role to play.