Addressing Affordable And Adequate Housing Needs

Larry Marsland, executive director of the Lower Cape Outreach Council, speaking recently at the Federated Church of Orleans, made two comments that caught my attention. Many Council clients work in jobs that pay $8 to $12 an hour, inadequate to meet the cost of living on Cape Cod. Furthermore, even after they attain greater earning power thanks to programs the LCOC offers, they may not find housing that is affordable. My reaction: “We have a problem!”

Many places face similar situations. A study done in the shoreline area of Connecticut found that persons who hold “essential jobs” are not paid enough to allow them to live in the towns where they work. As a result, the number of workers upon whom the general population depends for basic services is declining.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has called for 10 percent of a town’s “housing stock” to be affordable. According to the Harwich Housing Production Plan, Dennis to Wellfleet levels are now between 1.9 and 5.1 percent, with the exception of Orleans at 9.3 percent and Harwich at 5.4 percent. Many of the increases are due to Habitat for Humanity projects.

In December 2016 the Harwich Board of Selectmen received a new Housing Production Plan developed by the multi-agency Harwich Housing Plan Work Group to modify or replace the 2003 Housing Strategy and 2009 Housing Production Plans. An impressive 139 pages, the report offers an (for the average citizen) overwhelming and highly technical overview, including four strategies for addressing the town’s current shortfall in affordable and adequate housing. An update on the implementation of that plan is given in the above-mentioned website.

A drive around Harwich gives the impression that affordable and adequate housing, however, are not the goal of current individual and development construction projects. Rather, they continue the trend of building large residences, often second homes, and renovating or expanding existing ones. Plans for sewers in the East Harwich area, though ostensibly undertaken for environmental reasons, could open the door to further expansion of an already high-priced housing market.

There are several reasons their focus is not on meeting what for many citizens is a pressing need. Real estate, construction, electrical, plumbing and other contractors, lumber, hardware and tool supply stores, and home and landscape maintenance businesses benefit more from large, expensive projects than from less profitable housing for low-income persons or families. Further, a key source of income for Harwich and most Cape governments is property taxes, the revenue from which increases when expensive residences are built. Zoning laws and enforcement, as well as a belief in the right of owners to do as they wish with their properties, also seem to favor such projects. There are benefits from these factors – but also a cost in terms of Harwich’s inability to reach the minimal goal set by the Commonwealth.

There are two other factors contributing to the difficulties faced by low income families seeking affordable housing: the inflated cost of residences on Cape Cod and low-paying jobs. The arbitrary value placed on houses by the marketplace and the self-interests of the industries building, selling, insuring or maintaining them complicate an already complex issue, and understanding and supporting ways to address it may prove difficult for average citizens. In addition, a dependence on underpaid labor for essential services can replace an awareness of or sensitivity to the challenges people face trying to make ends meet.

Any housing a person can afford to purchase is affordable, but in this context the phrase is used to represent homes that can be purchased by those on the lower end of the economic scale, usually with help from a bank or mortgage lender. Adequate and acceptable housing describes rental properties that are affordable for those without enough income to buy a home, well-maintained by their landlord and equipped to meet the needs of the tenant. Both definitions are subjective but convey the essence of each classification.

Several Cape towns offer low-income municipal housing, though residency at Pine Oaks Village in Harwich is limited to senior citizens. Two proposal for addressing the need for acceptable and adequate housing on Cape Cod have recently come under study. One, advocated by the Housing Assistance Corporation, involves renting second homes on a year-round basis, as well as zoning changes to allow smaller lots, “mother-in-law apartments,” and multi-family home construction. Workforce housing, a term increasingly used by planners, government and organizations concerned with housing policy or advocacy, is gaining cache with realtors, developers and lenders. It can refer to any form of housing, including ownership of single or multi-family homes and the occupation of rental units. A version has been tried by local resorts to house J1 Visa Holders during the summer, and a Harwich business is considering renovating a former motel into workforce housing. This approach can have the downside of restricting effective efforts by tenants to ensure their self-identified needs are met, and by owners to protect their property assets. It can also reflect a classification inconsistent with contemporary understandings of social equality.

This Discovering Harwich column offers a lay person’s overview of the challenging, confusing and complicated issue of affordable, acceptable and adequate housing, especially for persons and families in low-paying yet essential services employment. Any response to a need being experienced by its citizens is a measure of the nature of a community. Life on Cape Cod should benefit all who live here no matter their economic status or type of employment. Seeing housing availability from only economic perspectives will not produce a common response to a communal problem. Only by coming together as fellow citizens will this and other issues facing the town of Harwich be addressed effectively.