Affordable Housing Trust Puts Its Money Where Its Mandate Is

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Housing and homelessness

The trustees of the Orleans Affordable Housing Trust Fund Board held their first meeting Jan. 30. Back row, from left, Selectman Alan McClennen, chair; Duane Landreth, vice chair; Matthew Cole, clerk. Front row, Alexis Mathison, Ward Ghory, Greg DeLory, Henry Brehm. The board will meet with the affordable housing committee March 6.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS – The town's new affordable housing trust agreed to put dollars behind desires last week, earmarking $2,200 to help spur marketing for an affordable unit that could lose that designation otherwise.

The board met Feb. 13 to address a two-bedroom condo at 18 West Rd., one of 11 units designated affordable at the 42-unit complex. The designated units are under a deed restriction that requires they be sold at the maximum value that is affordable. That comes to $147,000 in this case, and there's a $700 monthly condo fee, an amount prorated to the value of the unit.

A buyer's household income has to be 80 percent or less of the area median income for the county; that works out to a maximum income of $48,300 for one person and $55,200 for two. Total household assets can't exceed $275,000, and Social Security payments don't count against that number. In addition, a purchaser must be 62 or older.

The family of the unit's owner and the Housing Assistance Corporation, which handles marketing of the affordable units, “have been unable to find a buyer,” Director of Planning and Community Development George Meservey told the board last week. “If we don't take action, that unit could go on the open market and be lost on the (town's affordable housing) inventory.”

The town had been given a deadline of Feb. 26 by which, if a qualified buyer has not been found, it could exercise its option to buy the unit to keep it affordable. That has been extended by a month, Meservey said, allowing the option of injecting the $2,200 into the buyer's commission fee to make finding a new owner more attractive to realtors. Normally, that fee would be 2½ percent of the total sale – in this case, $3,675; the trust's contribution would make up the difference.

Should that effort fail, the trust could consider purchasing the unit through the Housing Assistance Corporation. “You will get your money back,” Meservey said, “when the property is sold.” Ownership, however temporary, would involve paying condo fees.

If the unit loses its affordable status and is sold on the open market, “the difference between the market rate and the affordable rate accrues back to the town,” Meservey said. Given the difficulty of preserving and building affordable housing, he said, “We'd rather have the unit than the cash.”

Several members volunteered to make a site visit with Meservey and report back to the trust board at its March 6 meeting, when a decision to purchase could be made. Ward Ghory said it would help to “develop a kind of case that says this is what we're up against, a one-page business case that says this is the risk, this is the reward.”

The discussion was another sign of how opportunities and support for affordable housing continue to gather steam in Orleans. Recently, a resident donated more than $10,000 in stocks to the trust. And at the board's meeting last week, member Henry Brehm stepped down from the dais to talk about his brother and sister-in-law's property on Tonset Road.

“They bought it planning on fixing it up,” he said. “He got another job in New Hampshire. They have a tax situation this year. They either want to sell or give it to a charity. Her new passion is affordable housing. She talked to Habitat and some contractors. People who build housing told her you could fit three other houses on that property.”

Meservey said the 1.35-acre property could support a single-family home and an accessory dwelling of up to 800 square feet by right, for a total of six bedrooms. When Brehm mentioned the possibility of a density waiver, Meservey said the regulatory process could be lengthy and costly.

The residence on the lot is more than 75 years old and on the town's historic inventory. “The affordable housing committee is always careful to make no enemies while pursuing affordable housing,” Meservey said. “I'd hate to tear down an historic building to make affordable housing. It's not necessarily a part of town you want to maximize your density in.”

Member Duane Landreth suggested working with the historical commission to preserve part of the historical structure, and Meservey noted the possibility of applying for Community Preservation funds to maintain the exterior.

As with the West Road unit, the trust board will send a scouting party of members to visit the house and property and report back on March 6.

Meservey told the board that a final version of an agreement between the town and Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank to allow further studies of the bank operation center's building and land off West Road with an eye toward creating affordable housing is likely to be signed shortly. The bank is moving those offices to its new headquarters, now under construction on Route 132 in Barnstable.

Meservey shared that same news on Feb. 6 with the affordable housing committee, the town's other engine of change for improved housing options. In other updates, he told the committee that “several interested parties” had approached him to ask what the town would like to see and would allow at Bayberry Square, aka the Underground Mall, on Route 6A.

“A commercial realtor said the owner might be willing to work with the town on affordable housing,” he said. The owner, who is asking $2.2 million for the property, has a seasonal home in Orleans, according to Meservey.

Another interested party would like to “run what's there now and put housing on top of it at some future date,” Meservey said of a “highly amorphous” plan. He said that party has also approached Housing Assistance Corporation about a partnership at the property.

“To me, the worst case scenario is that someone buys it and does nothing for 15 years, just looks for tenants,” said Meservey

Also on the committee's radar is Canal House, the old house at the intersection of Route 6A and Canal Road. Owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Fall River, it has been vacant for years. Tom Finan, an advocate of the building's reuse, told the committee the church “hasn't used it for 30 years. They mow the lawn and that's it... I'm sure the historical commission would be happy if they'd rehab it and make it look like it used to.”

Meservey said he's heard from Fr. Ken Campbell, convener of the Nauset Interfaith Alliance, that there's interest in using the parcel for transitional housing, similar to but not the same as Canal House, which is nearby. “I said we'd help out in any way we could,” he said. “They said they could save the structure.”

The committee also looked at what currently constitutes its holy grail: four acres of land controlled by the Orleans Housing Authority, a quasi-state agency, behind its development at John Avellar Circle. It appears the state would be willing to transfer the land to the town, but the major sticking point is access. Two of the options would impinge on conservation land, and a third would require threading a needle through the existing development. Meservey will meet with the housing authority to talk about options.