Once, boarding houses and dormitories that provided reasonably priced places for seasonal workers to live were fairly common. Large employers like Chatham Bars Inn had their own dorms, and buildings in places that were in locations that weren't yet desirable, like the former Epicure in downtown Chatham, rented rooms to students and others who waited tables, cleaned rooms and landscaped. Together with the family's summer home and grandma and grandpa's place at the Cape, this was the workforce housing of the past.
Those accommodations are long gone, converted to luxury condos, additional inn rooms or sold at top dollar to second home owners. A few companies are still able to provide a limited amount of housing for their employees; the Wequassett Inn owns a former motel in Chatham that houses some of its staff members, and the Wayside Inn and a few others own houses that workers share. Broad Reach Healthcare, which operates the Liberty Commons Nursing Home and Victorian Assisted Living facilities, recently bought a house in Brewster and a mixed-use building at 1455 Main St. in Chatham to create their own housing opportunities for staff members. In Harwich, the former Stonehorse Motel is being converted into 90 bedrooms for seasonal workers.
These efforts by individual businesses and developers are to be commended. They create a dent in the armor of the housing crisis Cape towns are experiencing, but it's a minor dent, almost cosmetic, and doesn't address many of the other aspects of the situation, such as housing for families. No one solution will address the full spectrum of housing issues, to be sure, and these efforts are one important approach. Pulling together these and others into a comprehensive housing plan is critical for not only understanding the full scope of the problem but coming up with a systematic way to address it. Harwich and Chatham now have a shared housing coordinator who could be tasked with this; like long-range plans that Cape towns developed nearly two decades ago, they should be inclusive and comprehensive, incorporating existing strategies like those noted above as well as accessory dwelling units, higher density in neighborhood centers and other out-of-the-box ideas.
Not all local employers have the resources to provide housing for their employees. And make no mistake, housing is the issue that's driving problems like declining school enrollment, a lack of diversity and unfilled jobs. We've had plenty of reports about it recently. Now it's time to wade into it and consider solutions, no matter how radical.