ORLEANS — The town took concrete steps in 2018 to support the pursuit of affordable housing options. Perhaps the most significant was a general override of the tax levy limit in May to fund a new version of the town's affordable housing trust with $275,000. In future years, an annual amount will be included in the budget for town meeting approval. The trust will also receive $300,000 in community preservation funds.
“Give credit to the finance committee for the idea of asking for a general appropriation,” said Katie Wibby, who succeeded Tom Johnson this September as chair of the affordable housing committee. “We were trying to come up with ways to fund (the trust). They said that it's so important, why don't you consider asking the town for an annual contribution? They were critical in getting all of this, a continuous funding stream.”
The committee went into the May town meeting prepared to speak about the need to fund the trust, “but we didn't have to say a thing,” Wibby said. Citizens rose to support funding the trust, including Alexis Mathison, a 2011 Nauset Regional High School graduate who teaches there and lives with her father.
“My only expectation in getting up to speak was just the hope that maybe somebody would look at me and hear me speak and realize there are young people who are trying to stay,” she said this week. “I feel like the young people just get lost in town. Yes, I'm young, but I consciously decided to live here and have a job. I want to stay, and it's almost impossible to do that.”
Mathison said she looked through her yearbook and “wrote down every person I know for a fact is still living on the Lower or Outer Cape. I came up with 15 names out of a class of 243. Before I started teaching, I was a professional babysitter. Both of the families I babysat for – one had four children, the other three – both families are gone. The parents grew up in Orleans. They didn't want to go. They wanted that same childhood they experienced for their own children.”
Another Nauset High graduate, Fire Chief Tony Pike, recalled moving to Orleans in 1977 and becoming a call firefighter. “The stipulation back then, I believe, was that you had to live in town,” he said. “Even if you moved to Eastham in the '80s, you had to get off the call department. I think all the (non-call) firefighters lived in town.”
Then came the real estate boom. “I can remember as deputy chief interviewing people a decade ago and being very frank with our prospective employees that it would cost half a million dollars to own a home in Orleans. All of the career staff have had to be very creative in finding a suitable home in their price range,” which must be, by contract, within seven miles of Orleans.
“That's acceptable to us,” Pike said of the geographical limit. “We typically run incredibly short-staffed and rely on off-duty individuals to come in and respond to emergencies. We only staff one ambulance and part of the next. Whenever we get a call, we need to bring in staff from their homes. The safest thing for towns is to have their fire paramedics and EMT living in the towns.”
Recently, a four-year member of the department resigned to move to New Hampshire with his family for better housing opportunities. When Pike asked the selectmen to approve advertising for a replacement, he was asked how many Orleans residents are in the department. Including himself, the chief said, there are four.
Community consciousness-raising was fired by last year's release of a community housing needs study, which was the focus on an Orleans Citizens Forum event this February. At the forum, Wibby cited sobering data: more than 41 percent of all housing in town is seasonal. Twenty-one percent of Orleans households make less than $25,000 a year. Forty-two percent are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing, and 21 percent more than half. The study found a deficit of 274 affordable rentals and recommended a goal of building 100 units in the next 10 years, 85 rentals and 15 for home ownership.
“I just think it's very apparent in town that there's really a crisis of housing,” Wibby said this week. “People are noticing that their kids can't get housing to stay here. Seniors are having trouble downsizing or maintaining the homes they have.”
The new, more agile version of the town's affordable housing trust will allow pursuit of properties as they come on the market, with the trust's board bringing proposals to the selectmen for decisions. Previously, purchases and other arrangements had to wait half a year or more for town meeting approval.
Final paperwork from the state approving the new trust was received just two weeks ago, Wibbey said, and selectmen hope to appoint members early next year. The board has already interviewed at least one candidate: Alexis Mathison.
She had expressed interest in both the affordable housing trust and the shellfish and waterways advisory committee, and when the selectmen asked her preference, she chose the latter. No appointments were made that night, and something happened in the interim. A person who owns a home in Chatham wrote to The Chronicle to question why Cape communities were spending money to keep young people in town when they could just as well live elsewhere.
“When I read her letter, I was physically upset, so enraged,” Mathison said. “That's the thing I'm fighting for most... After that letter came out, if I could only be on one committee, it needs to be the affordable housing trust. This is something I'm so passionate about.”
Last week, the selectmen held an executive session with the affordable housing committee and Laura Shufelt of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership about a possible acquisition of the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank operations center, which is being relocated to Barnstable. Studies have shown that the multi-story building on West Road is in very good shape and could be converted into 29 apartments. The bank has expressed interest in working with the town toward the goal of creating affordable housing there.
Meanwhile, just down the road in Eastham, a groundbreaking was held Dec. 7 for Village at Nauset Green, a $23 million, 65-unit affordable and workforce housing development. Orleans and Wellfleet each chipped in $100,000 of community preservation money toward the effort, which has been under way for a decade and a half.
“We certainly are for the regional approach to housing,” Wibby said. “Our towns are very close together, and it will benefit our residents as well. We are certainly supportive of a regional approach to helping other towns create more affordable housing.”
Mathison stresses that she wants to live in a multi-generational community. “I truly appreciate the range of ages in this town,” she said. “It can sound like the older generation is making it hard for the younger generation to live here, and in some respects that's true, but also I think back to my doctor asking me at my physical, 'You're 25. This town is aging, and there's not a ton of young people around. What do you do for fun?' I said, well for me, the way I was raised, who my father is, I have no problem walking into somewhere like the Land Ho! and sitting down and having conversations with a 25-year-old or a 65-year-old. I truly believe that one of the best things about this town is the wide range of ages. We can learn from each other. I just think the town needs to do a little bit of a better job accommodating both ends of the spectrum.”