It's an oft-repeated refrain: there isn't a single solution to the region's housing problem. That's not surprising, considering the problem itself is complex and multifaceted. Not only is there a dearth of capital “A” affordable housing – the kind that caps both the price and the income of buyers – the second-home market has increased the price of real estate beyond most workers, and apartments, even “attainable” and market rate units, are scarce. Reports of turnover rates of 1 percent or less are common.
A recent report by the Housing Assistance Corporation called for a variety of approaches to put a dent in the availability aspect of the housing crunch. Chatham is now pursuing two.
On Monday a coalition of residents announced that it had purchased a single-family home and would hold it until the town's affordable housing trust could contribute funds to lower the final cost to make the house available to a local family. The model is similar to the Chatham Conservation Foundation, which has in the past purchased open space and held it until the town could authorize funds to secure the property; similarly, a private group bought the Eldredge Garage property, held it and prepared it for later town purchase. Government moves slowly, by design, and having a private entity that can swoop in and serve as a bridge is an innovative way to try to preserve lower-cost, if not affordable, housing. The trust and town officials should continue to work with this group to identify potential acquisitions, with the idea that each one probably means a young family will have the opportunity to buy a home and remain in town.
Meanwhile, the planning board is pursuing an accessory dwelling unit bylaw that would allow year-round, single-family homeowners to create a separate apartment in their home. While unlikely to unleash a cascade of new housing uits, the ADU bylaw has the promise of providing at least a few apartments to ease the housing shortage. With some changes, the draft discussed during two public forums last week could be tight enough to prevent the abuse that some fear while encouraging some homeowners to make the investment necessary to provide an income-producing apartment or a home for a young or elderly resident. Fears expressed by some at the forums that the measure would double the town's population and alter the character of town are unfounded. ADUs aren't for everyone, and are only allowed in year-round, owner-occupied dwellings. ADUs in nonconforming properties are limited to 10 year, and the draft bylaw should be changed to allow by-right ADUs for conforming properties to another 10 or so, at least for a two- or three-year trial period. If the cap is reached, it will be to the amazement of many.
Alone, neither of these strategies will solve the housing problem. But they are small steps, and without them the situation will undoubtedly grow worse. We owe it to those caught up in this mess to at least try.