CHATHAM – The second Chatham 365 task force forum last Wednesday drew fewer people than the first session on April 6, but participants were no less vocal about the challenges they face in living here year round and offering an extensive menu of ideas to help ease the burden on both families and seniors.
Housing, jobs, tax breaks and support services for young families were among the many topics discussed by the 50 or so people who attended the 90-minute session at the community center.
Faced with soaring real estate prices and a seasonal economy that doesn't provide a lot of well-paying jobs, Chatham is struggling to maintain a diverse year-round community. Nearly 60 percent of the towns housing units are seasonal, and the income needed to afford a median priced home or the average monthly rent is nearly double the actual median income of residents, according to the town's 2018 housing production plan. There are 35 fewer Chatham students in the Monomoy Regional School District this year than last, and next year's kindergarten class is projected to be 25 percent smaller than the current class.
Appointed by selectmen to develop recommendations to address these problems, the task force held the two forums to help identify the problems and come up with ideas to “build a sustainable and a vibrant community in Chatham,” said Selectman and task force member Shareen Davis.
The cost of real estate and the lack of rentals—which some attributed to Airbnb—were clearly a significant barrier to Chatham residency for many. Even small apartments are difficult to find and afford, said Cody Cossette, who lives in Harwich but works in Chatham. Eldredge Public Library Director Amy Andreasson said when hiring new staff, find housing is just as important as their qualifications. Assistant Library Director Tammy DePasquale was dismayed when she helped a candidate for a job at the library look for an apartment recently.
“There were so many Airbnb apartments available, but nothing available for the person who wants to live and work in Chatham year round,” she said. “We've done an amazing job making Chatham a destination, but I think we have to work harder making it a year-round home.”
Ashley Hanson grew up in Chatham and owns a small business. She hoped to buy a lot to build a house but is finding zoning requiring 10,000 square feet of upland for each bedroom an impediment. “To try to find a three-quarter-acre lot is impossible,” she said. Meanwhile, she's living in her parents' basement.
Pierette Cook owns a downtown business and was able to buy a home in town thanks to the Chatham Housing Opportunity Project, a neighborhood of affordable homes built in the late 1980s. But her daughter Rachel, who co-owns the business, lives with her because she can't afford today's home prices. The large homes being built in town leave no opportunities for more modest houses, Rachel Cook said.
“I think the new construction is definitely hurting us,” she said.
Many seniors who find their housing situations changing face the same problem as young people, said Edmund Robinson, minister at the Chatham Unitarian Universalist Meeting House. “For a lot of seniors, it's a pretty tough place to live,” he said.
Chatham is not alone in experiencing these issues, as various surveys and studies in Barnstable County have found. Addressing the problem solely from a Chatham perspective is shortsighted, said Historical Commission Chairman Frank Messina. He was surprised there wasn't a more regional approach to wastewater problems two decades ago; Chatham went ahead on its own, but now Harwich and other Cape towns are looking at regional approaches.
“I think that's where the solution's going to be,” Messina said.
Sam Lucarelli said government spending puts pressure on residents. “Every time you turn around there's a fee,” he said. “More government equals higher cost of living, more people go.”
Year-round homeowners could be given a break on property taxes if the town adopts a residential exemption allowed under state law, said former Selectman Seth Taylor. The exemption for resident homeowners could be as much as 30 percent and would shift the tax burden to non-resident property owners. The town could also adopt a split property tax classification system and tax commercial properties at a higher rate than residential properties, he said; currently, all property is taxed at the same rate. Both residential investment properties and commercial properties have tax benefits not available to residential homeowners, he added.
When he was on the board he advocated those policy changes, which he said would put “downward pressure” on real estate prices. “There's been a general lack of desire in leadership to actually collect the data necessary for making good decisions,” he said.
Town officials should think outside the box in trying to attract well-paying jobs, said Planning Board Chair Kathryn Halpern. “Companies can be located anywhere,” she said, thanks to the internet. “You can run a multinational company from a little office in Chatham.” But the fast internet connection needed for those businesses is hard to come by here and expensive, said Messina. He suggested the town could subsidize connections to OpenCape, which maintains a high-speed internet network along the spine of the Cape.
The town has to rethink its fear of density, Messina added. “I think we have to be realistic and allow some kind of multi-family housing,” he said. Taylor, however, asserted that increased housing density without sufficient employment opportunities could lead to trouble. Chatham and the Cape doesn't have the “social infrastructure” to support the lifestyles of people making $100,000 to $200,000 per year, he said.
“We have to recognize we're not Portland, we're not Seattle, we're not Austin, and we're not going to become those places,” he said “It's a combination of work and decent wages that's going to provide people with an opportunity for housing.”
Childcare subsidies not only for pre-K but older children would ease financial pressure on families, said Sarah Jane Mason. “A pool would be awesome for winter,” she added.
“This is a complex issue,” said Selectman Peter Cocolis, who is also a member of the Chatham 365 task force. “There's a lot of people that recognize we have a problem. This committee, I can tell you, wants to do something about it.”
The task force will review input from the two forums and use the information to begin developing short-, medium- and long-term recommendations and policy changes to deliver to the board of selectmen. He urged people to stay involved in the process by attending task force meetings and the upcoming annual town meeting.
Those who were unable to attend the forums and wish to submit comments can email them to email@example.com.