How To Save Chatham

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Development , Community events , Affordable housing , Economic development

Fred Bierwirth offers comments at Saturday's Chatham 365 task force forum at the community center. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Forum Participants Suggest Ways To Keep Town Vital

CHATHAM – Prior to Saturday's Chatham 365 task force forum, Courtney Alex Wittenstein said she wrote a break-up letter to Chatham.

“I'm living proof of what's happening here,” said Wittenstein, who grew up in town but lives in Harwich. “I couldn't move here, I couldn't raise my family here, I couldn't start a business here.”

During the two-and-a-half-hour session at the community center, residents—and those who would like to be residents—shared similar frustrations about the difficulty of living in Chatham year-round, focusing on the high cost of real estate, the lack of available housing and economic opportunities, inflexible zoning and the high cost of childcare.

There were solutions offered as well. Limiting the size of new homes and discouraging real estate speculation, removing road blocks to starting businesses and diversifying the town's economic base, being more creative with affordable housing, retaining the town's elementary school and encouraging more people to attend town meeting were among the ideas posed by some of the approximately 100 people who attended the session.

The Chatham 365 task force was created by the board of selectmen to identify the challenges of living in town year round develop policy and other recommendations to encourage a more sustainable, diverse community, focusing on helping young people, families and seniors move here or stay in town. Saturday's forum was the first of two; the second was scheduled for Wednesday.

A number of people suggested that solutions lay with working together as a community.

“We tend to look at things in silos in this town,” said Maegen Storey. “I think it's time we look at ourselves as a community instead of in little bits.”

That includes not blaming summer residents and second home owners for creating the current situation, said David Oppenheim.

“What we want to do is engage them,” he said. That group pays 60 percent of the town's property taxes and provides many jobs without putting pressure on town services and the schools. “Let them be part of the solution, not by penalizing them, but by engaging them.”

But there was general agreement that a major contributing factor to the current problems is the rising cost of real estate, and the conversion of year-round houses to season use, that has put most homes in town out of the reach of even those making a good wage. Anyone, anywhere, with the cash or credit can buy a home here and cover their costs by renting it out during the summer, said Fred Bierwirth.

“This is supply and demand completely out of whack,” he said. “That makes it a lot harder for people to live here because you have to complete with those people.” Michael Westgate also noted the “mismatch between salary and real estate prices.”

Zoning has also contributed to the problem. Former Selectman Florence Seldin, who helped found the town's affordable housing committee, said Riverbay is now the town's “low-rent district” because it's one of the few neighborhoods where there are homes available for under $500,000.

“You could not build Riverbay today because of the small lots,” she said. “And it's a great community.” In the 1980s, Oppenheim said, Chatham “zoned out of fear,” imposing large lot sizes and other limitations. “We actually exacerbated the problem instead of anticipating that the popularity of Chatham would increase values,” he said. “The inflexibility we built into our zoning back in the 1980s made the problem worse that it needs to be.”

“I think we're a victim of our own charm,” said Huntley Harrison.

Judith Felton said there seems to be a “we-they” perspective that prevents some people from recognizing how diverse Chatham is economically. “We might be here because we've been slow in fully embracing the fact that there are year-rounders who struggle,” she said.

It's not just housing; Wittenstein said she wanted to open a cafe in town but commercial rents were between $5,200 and $5,500 a month. She's also seeing fewer year-round businesses in town. “It's looking very modular in downtown Chatham now,” she said.

“You can build all the affordable housing you want, but if people can't work here, it doesn't matter,” said Bierwirth, who is currently building Chatham Works, a fitness and co-working space in North Chatham.

Larry Marsland, CEO of the Lower Cape Outreach Council, said there's ample evidence that many people in town struggle; 40 percent of students at Chatham Elementary School get federally subsidized lunches, and the council helped open a “food closet” at the school that serves more than 70 families a month, he said. Many seniors also have trouble making ends meet, and some of those are raising grandchildren.

“Employment I think is the bottom line issue,” he said, adding that many 80 percent of LCOC clients work full time.

“It's not just a challenge for young people,” Seldin added. “It's a challenge for older people who want to stay here year-round and cannot.”

Many people urged support of an accessory dwelling unit bylaw amendment at the May 13 annual town meeting, which would allow year-round residents to create separate apartments within their single-family homes. Lynn Pleffner suggested a building moratorium and an assessment on homes sales above $950,000 to help fund affordable housing. The town should find a way to discourage large speculative developments which don't benefit the town, said Rebecca Fulcher. Shannon Eldredge suggested limiting the size of new homes and investing in waterfront infrastructure.

Recognizing that having a local workforce is important to many industries, Carol Gordon said local builders could be encouraged to consider more affordable housing for young people. Larry Goodrich said the town needs to simplify its zoning and other regulations and streamline the requirements for starting a business. He added that wealthy residents of Kalamazoo, Mich., created a foundation to provide free tuition to some state and private colleges for students who remained in the local school district through graduation.

Other solutions suggested during the session included setting a $15 per hour minimum wage for town workers and requiring that a certain percentage of workers on town-funded projects, such as road and sewer construction, be Chatham residents. “If we're going to suffer the consequences, we might as well have some benefits,” said Westgate. Bierwirth said the town can encourage entrepreneurship and help get access to capital. He also said keeping a separate elementary school sends a strong signal to young families. Because of declining enrollment, the Monomoy Regional School District last year considered regionalizing the Harwich and Chatham elementary schools—dividing the grades between the two schools—but dropped the plan due to heavy opposition. Storey agreed the elementary school has to remain open.

“It's the heart of this community,” she said. “These kids are the future of this town.”

While selectmen are proposing adding $30,000 to the Chatham Childcare Voucher program, a more expansive pre-school voucher program needs to be developed, said Seldin. “It costs a lot of money for a family to send their children to a pre-K program,” she said. Storey said full-time daycare cost her family $20,000 a year, and that was a decade ago. The town's economic development committee proposal to underwrite the cost of daycare for all Chatham kids helped spark the formation of the task force.

Summer residents might be willing to donate to a program to buy smaller homes and keep them affordable, said Oppenheim. A private group he is involved in recently bought a home on Crowell Road and town meeting will be asked to acquire it to add to the MCI rent-to-own program. That was a test to demonstrate how the private sector can quickly buy a home and hold on to it until the town can appropriate the funds. A number of local contractors donated $30,000 in services to help fix up the house, which will reduce the cost of improvements to the town.

Stephanie Goley said a community pool, while it seems like a luxury, would go a long way toward helping to keep the town vital year-round.

Many of the ideas raised at the forum will require support at town meeting from a more diverse group than the usual attendees, warned Karolyn McClelland. “Nothing you come up with tonight isn't going to matter if you can't get it through town meeting,” she said.

The feedback at the session was “exemplary,” said Selectman Peter Cocolis, who is also a member of the Chatham 365 task force.

“A lot of us know there are problems in Chatham in a number of areas. The question is where do we go from here,” he said. The task force will review the comments and develop recommendations to selectmen that will likely take the form of short-, mid- and long-term strategies. And they hope to do so with expedience.

“We're not going to take a year to do it,” Colocolis said. “I want you to hold our feet to the fire.”

Those who could not attend the forums can send comments and suggestions to kdonovan@chatham-ma.gov.