Trust, Committee Review Opportunities To Create Affordable Housing

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Housing and homelessness

Orleans Affordable Housing Trust Board Chairman Alan McClennen and Affordable Housing Committee Chairman Katie Wibby listen to the conversation at the first joint meeting of their boards March 6.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS At times, it sounded like a modern version of Monopoly. At their initial joint meeting March 6, the town's affordable housing trust board and affordable housing committee talked about getting on the game board by, among other possibilities, acquiring a motel.

The trust drew favorable Community Chest cards when town meeting voted to support it with community preservation money and annual funding amount beyond that. Voters empowered the board's trust to act quickly, in concert with the board of selectmen, to secure property that could ease the town's scarcity of affordable rental and home ownership units.

At the joint meeting, Director of Planning and Community Development George Meservey ran down a short list of properties on the market that included the Olde Tavern Motel and Inn on Route 6A.

“It's a two-acre site within the proposed sewering area,” he said. Citing a development in Westford of bungalows between 900 and 1,000 square feet, he said the Orleans site “looks like it could sustain 15 of those small, single-family units... A couple of fairly large lots in downtown are available right now, and that's not always the case. We need to take full advantage of every opportunity for density and the number of units we can get on site.”

Whoever buys the motel will have to upgrade the septic system, but with the possibility of town sewer arriving in the next half-decade, one option would be for the trust to acquire the motel now to preserve the opportunity for a developer to build affordable units there later.

Meservey noted that the recent community housing needs study of Orleans found that families, seniors, and one-person households were priorities for creating more housing. The study recommended that 100 units be created over the next decade, with 85 percent rentals and 15 percent ownership.

“The density provided by town meeting for the downtown area, from the Eastham rotary to the Brewster town line, is 2½ times what was previously allowed,” Meservey pointed out. “Combined with sewer infrastructure, that really sets the stage to do something substantial.”

Tom Johnson, former chairman of the housing committee, said acquiring or developing rental property “was a focus in the report and a really dire need that's very difficult to fill... Right now occupancy for rental property in Orleans is a matter of turnover; there's no vacancy unless there's turnover.”

“That needs to be our focus,” committee member Fran McClennen said, adding that, “If we're looking at rentals, we need to think about the maintenance. If we do it in a way that's affordable, we need to have rental properties in the same area. It's too expensive if they're scattered about.”

Density is also a plus for development and management companies, which prefer working on projects with 40 or more units.

Another property of interest for creating multiple units of affordable housing is the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank's operations center on West Road, soon to be relocated to Barnstable. Meservey announced that the bank had signed a letter of intent not to market the property while the town pays consultants to perform a feasibility study and draw up conceptual plans, including scenarios that would place additional buildings on the land.

“Over the next 90 days, we'll see what our opportunities are,” trust board chairman Alan McClennen said. He suggested that the town consider financing housing development there with the bank to maintain local control.

Committee member Gilbert Merritt said efforts “ought to focus on rental housing only, and if there is an opportunity for a house for sale we ought to jump all over it and give it to Habitat (for Humanity). I don't think we should build houses for sale.”

Meservey said a lot at 16 Old Timers Lane might be suitable to acquire for a Habitat home build. “The idea to buy a piece of property and give it to Habitat is a great mechanism,” trust board member Matt Cole said, “but what about the idea of single-family house lots that are developed? Could we find a manager in the community interested in renting single-family homes? Would we then be able to put on a deed restriction that the house forever be rented on a year-round basis?”

Talk about large future projects such as the motel and bank properties, and also the Underground Mall space, is important, but “whatever we can do now is just as important,” said trust member Alexis Mathison, for “the resident under 30 in this room. Young people are leaving now. They come back from college and they're gone.”

Summing up, Fran McClennen saw three directions for the trust board and the committee: “look at larger properties where we could create larger group rental units, vacant lots we could purchase or pass on to Habitat, and thirdly looking at houses for sale we could somehow go out to encourage somebody to purchase and manage as rentals.”

With the trust's borrowing capacity, Cole said at one point, “we can go fish hunting and hunt a lot of fish or go whale hunting and hunt one or two whales.”

“How do we get these things accomplished?” committee chairman Katie Wibby asked the trust board. Chairman Alan McClennen replied, “Anytime you find one, you call us, and 48 hours later, we'll meet.”