Tackling Housing Crisis: A Full-time Job

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Housing and homelessness

Andrea Aldana, director of housing advocacy for the Community Development Partnership. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

HARWICH The Cape’s year-round housing shortage is undeniable, and town volunteers deserve much of the credit for the affordable units that have been created so far. But now, with the talents of a housing expert from the Community Development Partnership, Chatham and Harwich are treating the housing crisis with a full-time focus.

Until now, Harwich and Chatham have worked with volunteer committees to chart a strategy for increasing housing affordability and to find opportunities to build new units or develop new programs. But progress has been slow, particularly when compared to communities that have a staff person devoted to housing development.

“The best example is Provincetown,” said Andrea Aldana, director of housing advocacy for the Eastham-based Community Development Partnership. Under the state’s comprehensive permitting bylaw, Chapter 40B, Massachusetts communities are challenged with reserving 10 percent of their year-round housing inventory as affordable. For years, that goal has been elusive, with Chatham now at 5 percent, and Harwich at 5.5. Progress has been slow enough that some have asked whether the 10 percent goal is realistic.

Provincetown, where the housing shortage is acute, has managed to set aside 9.8 percent of its year-round housing stock as affordable. But how?

“They actually have somebody on staff to do this,” Aldana said. “That makes a huge difference.”

Voters in Chatham and Harwich are following that lead, having each appropriated $30,000 in Community Preservation Act housing funds last year to jointly fund a full-time housing consultant, with a commitment for additional funds this year. Aldana started work in December under a contract between both towns and the Community Development Partnership.

Under that contract, a CDP employee will provide established office hours in the town halls to assistant residents with housing inquiries. She’s available to speak with people about rental subsidies, down payment assistance programs and housing buy-down programs that the towns offer, and to help people who are in danger of losing their housing because of affordability issues. Aldana can also connect people to regional housing resources and homeless prevention services.

But the position isn’t just focused on customer service. Under the direction of town administration, Aldana will support volunteers on key housing committees, assisting their efforts and following up on their initiatives. She can also arrange for support when towns are seeking to draft zoning bylaw amendments to encourage new types of housing development.

It will also be up to the housing consultant to create and update the database of the towns’ subsidized housing inventories, creating a dossier on each property and ensuring that deed restrictions are in place so that properties don’t wrongly leave the affordable housing rolls over time.

Each town remains free to find the best affordable housing strategies for their community, but they draw on the experience of the CDP, which has been working with Lower Cape communities on housing issues for years. Sharing a staff member will also give Harwich and Chatham access to some of the ideas already being explored by neighboring towns, Aldana said.

Though the partnership is now limited to two towns, Aldana said the CDP hopes the collaboration sets the stage for a broader Lower Cape regional housing office, sharing resources and best practice among the communities of Chatham, Harwich, Brewster and Orleans.

For now, a focus of Aldana’s work in Harwich and Chatham will be the towns’ affordable housing trusts. The trusts were created as an acknowledgment that the traditional way towns acquire property, by voting at town meeting, is too slow to respond to housing opportunities.

“That’s just now how the real estate market works,” she said. The Chatham trust has already acquired several properties, and Harwich’s trust has several projects in the works. Aldana said she hopes to help Harwich identify a mission, priorities and guidelines for its trust, which is still relatively new. She plans to stress the need for a sustainable revenue source for the housing trusts, which now rely chiefly on yearly appropriations from Community Preservation Act funds.

Meeting the 10 percent state housing goal for communities is no simple matter, Aldana noted. By state law, the target is a percentage of year-round housing units, but houses are regularly purchased for conversion to seasonal homes. The result is that the affordable housing target number is decreasing, lending the false appearance that communities are making progress creating new units, “but really the whole crisis is getting worse.”

Ultimately, housing initiatives in Chatham and Harwich have to pass muster at town meeting, where zoning bylaw changes – like the current push for accessory dwelling units – draw fire from those concerned about too much residential density. In many cases, those critics are actually concerned more about the design of affordable units than the density they create, Aldana said. That means that some initiatives can likely be advanced simply by having more responsive designs, she said.

Still, advancing the creation of year-round housing on the Lower Cape requires political momentum. The recent public dialogue spurred by Beverly Nelson’s letter to the editor shows that there are young people who are ready to be engaged in the political process, Aldana said. For the last couple years, using CPA funds from Lower Cape towns, the Community Development Partnership has trained nearly 150 town officials on affordable housing issues and strategies, and nearly 100 citizens – 30 from Harwich alone – have been trained as housing advocates.

“It’s going pretty well,” Aldana said. Productive affordable housing discussions were part of most Lower Cape annual town meetings last year, she said, and volunteer housing advocates helped make that happen.

“They’re adding energy to the system,” she said.