When the Cape Cod Chronicle was first published around a half century ago, it featured advertisements for modern spec homes in new developments, designed to appeal to young working families. Today, those houses are occupied largely by retirees, or they’ve been renovated and expanded for use as vacation homes. It’s a symptom of demographic changes that have been in the works for decades.
From school administrators to business leaders, officials are sounding the alarm about sustainability – the practicality of retaining young families who contribute to the local workforce, despite the mismatch of relatively low wages and the high cost of living on Cape Cod. But what do the numbers say about sustainability?
While towns and parishes have been keeping vital records on Cape Cod since European settlers arrived, there is no single indicator that tells the complete story of population movements. But the vital statistics kept by town clerks in recent decades provide some useful information.
When it comes to gauging the number of families living in town at a given time, marriage statistics aren’t very helpful. That’s because so many couples come to the Cape for their weddings, Chatham Town Clerk Julie Smith said. A better indicator is the number of births and deaths.
In 1970, Chatham registered 71 births; Harwich had 70 and Orleans recorded 38 new babies born to residents. Twenty years later, Chatham’s birth roll had gone down by almost 30, but Harwich’s was up by 15. In 2017, just 25 babies were born to Chatham families and 15 were born in Orleans, while Harwich’s numbers were steady.
Not surprisingly, the number of deaths consistently outpaces the number of births, reflecting the area’s popularity with retirees. That delta between birth and death rates is a key figure, even though it doesn’t reflect population change – which would include people who move in and out of town. But expressed as a percentage, the difference between the number of births and deaths over the years is telling.
In 1970, Chatham actually saw six more births than deaths, making an 8.5 percent surplus. In Harwich and Orleans, deaths outnumbered births by 51.4 and 60.5 percent, respectively.
Twenty years later, all three towns were running deficits, with 118 percent more deaths than births in Harwich, 132 percent more in Orleans, and 171 percent more in Chatham.
The numbers from 2017 are staggering. Harwich saw 158.8 percent more deaths than births, and in Orleans, deaths outpaced births by 566 percent. Chatham’s deficit was 600 percent, with 175 deaths compared to just 25 births.
Chatham Selectman Peter Cocolis took note of the difference between birth and death numbers included in a recent staff report.
“We’re just getting older. That’s something we have to consider, something we need to worry about,” he said. “It’s sobering in a lot of ways.”
Of course, everything is more expensive today than it was in 1970. But the high cost of living on Cape Cod today is undeniable and is perhaps best shown in the housing market.
As recently as a few decades ago, it was well within the means of retail workers, teachers, utility workers and other year-round Cape Cod residents to buy a new home in a tidy subdivision without the need for an exorbitant mortgage.
A sampling of real estate ads from the Lower Cape Cod Chronicle from 1970 shows laughably low asking prices. But those prices aren’t low just because of inflation.
A listing by Brooks and Co. Realtors for a four-bedroom colonial on a three-quarter acre lot in Chatham is advertised at $35,000. Adjusted to 2018 dollars, the price would be $233,338. But it’s hard to imagine that the property would sell for less than $1 million today.
Realtor Ross Ragan advertised a five-bedroom, three-bath home in Chatham’s Old Village, complete with an ocean view, for $55,000, or $366,675 in today’s dollars. Today, it could easily be a multi-million dollar property.
Certainly homes like these were pricey in 1970 – and perhaps out of reach for some working people – but home values have risen faster than the rate of inflation all over the Lower Cape, even away from the water. The change simply reflects supply and demand, and today the supply of homes on the Cape is limited.
In Chatham, officials have tried a variety of approaches to create affordable housing, with some efforts proving more successful than others. The planning board is expected to consider a zoning bylaw amendment that would create “accessory dwelling units” that would theoretically be available for working families. But in their review of that proposal last week, the summer residents’ advisory committee raised some key questions.
“There does not appear to be a substantial increase in year-round employment in Chatham to draw additional young families,” their report reads. “Chatham has to ‘compete’ with Harwich for those new families. A family seeking to settle or remain in the area can live in Harwich, have access to the same school system and pay about the same average tax bill (Chatham $4,462; Harwich $4,456). However, where the average assessed value of a home is $605,403 in Harwich, it is $916,286 in Chatham.”
When family homes come on the market on the Lower Cape, they naturally sell to the highest bidder, often a retiree or a second homeowner.
While the past few decades have seen some ebb and flow of population numbers, demographers see a clear trend in the years ahead for most Cape towns. The number of people is decreasing.
A study by the University of Massachusetts’ Donahue Institute in March 2015 makes some clear projections.
Harwich, which had a population of 12,243 in the 2010 census, is projected to have just over 12,000 by the year 2020. That number drops to 11,840 in 2025, and 11,679 by 2030. By the year 2035, the town’s population is predicted to be about 11,517, or nearly 6 percent lower than it was in 2010.
That change is fairly modest, compared to what’s predicted to happen in Chatham and Orleans, the two Massachusetts towns that regularly compete for the rights to claim the oldest average age for its citizens.
Chatham’s population of 6,125 recorded in 2010 dropped below 6,000 in the next five years, and is projected to reach 5,518 by 2020. If demographers are correct, that number will dip below 5,000 later in that decade, reaching about 4,637 by the year 2035. That would represent a decline of nearly 24.3 percent from 2010 numbers.
In Orleans, the decline is expected to be even more precipitous. Donahue Institute demographers predicted a drop from 5,890 year-round residents in 2020 to a projected 4,065 people in 2035, a nearly 31 percent drop.
What it means
The loss of young people from the region is already being felt. Steadily declining class sizes in Chatham and Harwich prompted the creation of the Monomoy Regional School District in 2011, and at the time, some proponents of regionalization worried that even the combined district would have trouble keeping enrollment at adequate levels.
Enrollment has also been a challenge at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School, despite the fact that graduates are entering a workforce that has strong demand for skilled tradesmen. Anyone who doubts the need for trained and certified plumbers, electricians, landscapers or other skilled workers needs only to try to hire one; contractors are so busy, it can sometimes be weeks before they even return calls.
Area businesses seeking to hire year-round employees report a shortage of applicants, often linked to the unavailability of housing. From the employees’ perspective, businesses are unable to pay wages that are high enough for them to afford rent or mortgage payments.
In addition to focusing on more traditional solutions like building affordable housing units, Lower Cape towns are trying more holistic approaches to economic sustainability. Chatham appointed an economic development committee that has examined a number of other ideas for easing the burden on year-round workers. In 2016, the committee issued a memo to selectmen urging their support for shoulder-season tourism activities, and possibly a signature Chatham event, that would keep the visitor economy going later in the fall and earlier in the spring.
The committee also opined that there are factors beyond housing that make it difficult for working families in town.
“At this time, the EDC is focusing on exploring solutions to mitigate the high cost of living for young adults and their families. Several factors contribute to the high cost of living and the EDC believes the board should consistently work to reject cost increases that affect this demographic,” committee members wrote in a memo last year. The committee estimated that a local working family pays about $106,000 on childcare between the time the child is born until it reaches fifth grade, a prohibitive expense.
“With an estimated 20-25 percent of Chatham families seeking financial assistance for childcare, the EDC views childcare as one issue for which the town can rapidly develop solutions that would have an immediate and significant positive impact on the critical 18-44 demographic,” the committee wrote. “Additionally, the EDC believes addressing this need will generate childcare-related employment opportunities in Chatham.”