The Housing Assistance Corporation's report released this week, “Housing on Cape Cod: The High Cost of Doing Nothing,” makes a solid case for the need to increase the stock of year-round housing on the Cape for middle to higher income local residents. While many local communities have concentrated on eking out a small but steady stream of affordable housing units – certainly not enough, as Chatham's recent housing production plan demonstrates – the middle demographic, earning $50,000 and above, has been caught in a housing vise. They don't make enough to afford to buy a house here and the stock of market-rate rentals has shrunk. Investors and second homeowners have the financial resources locals don't have, and they're buying homes and taking them off the year-round rental market – many are becoming seasonal rentals – at an unprecedented rate.
Among the several solutions proposed in the HAC report, promoting accessory dwelling units – essentially apartments in existing homes – and updating zoning bylaws make sense, loosening restrictive zoning and using Smart Growth to target high-density development. So does the lead recommendation, encouraging some of the nearly 60,000 owners of homes rented seasonally to convert to year-round rentals. A good idea, but we have doubts whether it will make a meaningful difference. The majority of those owners won't be interested, since they most likely use their homes more than a few weeks out of the year. The idea of a 50-week lease, allowing the homeowner a two-week stay while the tenant vacations elsewhere, sounds good but seems problematic; who chooses the weeks, what if the tenant can't go on vacation when the owner wants to use the home, etc.
We like HAC's new Rent 360 program, which provides a $1,000 incentive for year-round conversions along with technical help in screening tenants and finding property managers. Greater visibility of that program could spur conversions. But after watching Chatham struggle with the idea of tax breaks for resident property owners, which selectmen rejected, we expect tax breaks as incentives for year-round conversions will be an uphill battle in most communities.
HAC's report sheds light on a subject that needs more attention. Property values on the Cape continue to climb farther out of the reach of most local workers. Right now that seems great for the economy, but as the report points out, sooner or later businesses – and not just service and retail businesses – will suffer by not being able to attract employees, even in such areas as banking, research and other higher-paid professions. Cape Codders should check out the report – available at capehousing.org – and pay close attention when these issues come before their boards of selectmen and town meetings. As the subtitle of the report suggests, there's a high cost to doing nothing, and it's just not an option.