Planning Board Endorses Housing Production Plan Update

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Affordable housing

Affordable housing on Lake Street, a large percentage of the 174 units of existing affordable housing in town. The planning board last week endorsed the latest draft of the town's housing production plan, which maps out strategies for promoting additional affordable housing. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – The planning board approved the town's latest housing production plan last week. The document will now to go the board of selectmen for its endorsement before being submitted to the state for certification.

An update of the town's 2013 housing production plan, the document provides strategies for reaching the goal of having 10 percent of the town's year-round housing stock classified as affordable. Currently 5.03 percent of the 3,450 year-round housing units, or 174 units, are considered affordable, said consultant Karen Sunnarborg, who worked on the plan with the town's affordable housing committee and community development department. That leaves gap of 172 units, a number which will increase over time as new houses are built, she said.

Building the 17 affordable units a year that would be necessary to reach the goal seems unlikely, given that only six were created since the 2013 plan was adopted. Meeting the state-imposed goal allows the town to reject certain developments under Chapter 40B and precludes the developer from appealing.

The plan also recognizes the need for “attainable” housing units, which while they don't meet the technical definition of affordable under state programs, “still serve a pressing local need” by providing housing for local residents, especially workers and young families, Sunnarborg said.

“Even when you reach the 10 percent goal, there will still be unmet housing needs in the community,” she said.

Expanding year-round housing availability on the Cape was the focus of a recent Housing Assistance Corporation report which suggested finding ways to encourage conversion of seasonal homes to year-round rentals. Last week the board of selectmen also expanded its planned task force on retaining young families to focus on ways to make living in Chatham sustainable for all ages.

There are a number of factors working against affordable housing in town, including an increase in seasonal units, currently at 56 percent, up from 46 percent in 1990. Housing prices, both rental and sale, are high, with the median home price now at $590,000. While the median income here, at $65,750 as of 2016, is higher than the state and county median income, there's still an affordability gap, Sunnarborg said, with those making the median income only able to afford homes under $300,000 without spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. There were only 27 homes under $200,000, and all are in affordable housing programs, she added.

The plan includes a number of strategies for addressing the town's housing needs, many revised from the previous plan, Sunnarborg said. Some are already in the pipeline, including hiring a housing coordinator, a position that will be shared with Harwich. Both towns appropriated funding for the position earlier this year and a request for proposals has been issued to solicit candidates for the job.

A second strategy currently in the works involves a revision of the town's accessory dwelling unit (ADU) bylaw, which essentially allows creation of apartments within existing single-family dwellings. It's an “important component of this housing plan,” Sunnarborg said, “although these units will not count as part of the subsidized housing inventory, they still serve a pressing local need for more year-round housing rentals.”

Last week Principal Planner Aly Sabatino reviewed the planning board's latest ADU draft bylaw with the zoning board of appeals. The planning board is working toward presenting the measure to voters at the May annual town meeting.

Other strategies including continuing to capitalize the town's affordable housing trust fund, continuing public education and encouraging a working relationship among the affordable housing committee, economic development committee and planning board. Additional zoning considerations include considering allowing development of nonconforming lots that may not meet all dimensional requirements under the bylaw but could still accommodate smaller housing, promoting mixed use development and Smart Growth allowing higher density in village centers.

“None of these are the silver bullet that will save the affordable housing crisis that's going on in this part of the Cape,” Sunnarborg said. “But they provide tools for guiding affordable housing development to appropriate locations and should be considered.”

Florence Seldin, a former member of the affordable housing committee and a former selectman, said while the plan is “aspirational,” it provides an outline forward with strategies that are “really doable.” Developing 17 affordable units “seems formidable in light of the past” and the lack of developable property in town, “but don't give up,” she urged.

Planning board member Tom Geagan agreed creating 17 units is a challenge. “I don't know if that's attainable,” he said, but added the town should focus on creating whatever units are possible. “I guess we're going to have to be creative in how we do this,” he said.

Chairman Kathryn Halpern express appreciation for the “enormous” amount of work that went into the housing plan update. The data seems to reinforce “what many of us already know,” she added, “but we do need the data to support what we know to be the trends.” Solutions may require “even stronger medicine” than the strategies in the plan, she suggest, which she said she hoped the planning board could play a part in.

Sunnarborg said once the plan is submitted to the state department of housing and community development, it should be approved within 90 days.