Fincom Working Group Sets Sights On Housing Crisis

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Housing and homelessness

The loss of year-round rentals to seasonal homeowners, many of whom rent for the lucrative summer season, is one of the contributors to the town's housing problems. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM – Who is looking for housing in town?

“I see every income, literally, from one extreme to the other,” said Tracy Cannon, the Chatham Housing Authority's administrative assistant. While emergency housing situations are almost always addressed immediately, some have remained on the waiting list for one of the agency's 72 units for as long as 15 years.

During a wide-ranging discussion that touched on both rental housing and homeownership, members of the finance committee's community housing working group agreed that the town needs a multi-track approach to housing, focusing as much on opportunity as affordable housing “with a capital A.”

It's fruitless to pursue the state-mandate that 10 percent of the town's housing stock be deed-restricted as affordable, members of the group agreed at the July 2 session.

“We will never reach the 10 percent because our market is going nuts,” said Andrew Young. Achieving the 10 percent level—Chatham is now in the 5 percent range—allows the town to reject so-called “hostile” 40B developments, which allows greater density if a percentage of units is affordable. But Chatham's land is too valuable to attract that type of development and there are few large parcels to support it, added Barbara Matteson.

Finance Committee Chairman Stephen Daniel said he brought together the working group to draw on the banking and housing loan expertise of Young and Matteson, both of whom worked for the Cape Cod Five before retiring. The group also includes fincom members Tommy Doane and Jo Ann Sprague. The goal, he said, is to develop a set of focused recommendations on housing issues.

“Let's start talking less and doing more,” Daniel said.

Housing has been a major talking point in town this year, with several official groups, including the Chatham 365 task force and the town's economic development committee, examining ways to ease the shortage of both market rentals and “attainable” housing for families and working people. In May voters passed a zoning bylaw amendment allowing the creation of accessory dwelling units, essentially apartments with up to two bedrooms within existing single-family homes. The community development department has had a handful of inquiries about ADUs, according to Donovan, but is advising people to wait until the bylaw amendment is approved by the Attorney General's Office before applying.

More than half of the town's housing stock seasonal and existing apartments have an extremely low turnover rate. A hot real estate market and a lack of homes selling for less than $500,000 also contributes to the problem. Maureen Moriarty, a former MassHousing official who attended last week's meeting, said the state loan limit for affordable housing or first-time homebuyers is $484,300; someone making the state area minimum income for Barnstable County of $86,200 for a family of four could afford such a home, but there are only 11 homes and eight condominiums on the market in Chatham for that amount, she noted.

As soon as a home in the $400,000 range comes on the market, “instantly a second homeowner buys it, or an investor,” said Matteson. She said realtors could help by becoming more involved in finding solutions.

Other communities have implemented programs to help ease the cost of homeownership. Moriarty said in Quincy a program helped pay the cost of mortgage insurance on affordable homes, which can run as much as $200 a month. It was funded through an affordable housing trust, which collected funds from developers.

Chatham has an affordable housing trust fund that now has close to $1 million, said Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan. Most of the money has come from community preservation funds, with occasionally contributions from developers who, under the town's zoning bylaw, can make a payment in lieu of building an affordable home in developments of 10 or more units. Eastward Companies contributed $204,000 to the affordable housing trust fund instead of including an affordable home in its 12-lot subdivision off Barn Hill Road, Hunter's Rise.

But the trust guidelines do not make it easy to use those funds; for instance, community preservation funds were used at the recent annual town meeting to purchase a home on Crowell Road which will be added to the town's MCI rent-to-own program, rather than the affordable housing trust. Donovan said officials are working with a consultant to make the trust fund guidelines more “user friendly.”

Possible approaches discussed at the session include directing more community preservation funds toward housing; raising the town's area minimum income so that people making more money can qualify for housing assistance; and getting the private sector more involved. Donovan said the economic development committee has discussed providing breaks for small subdivisions that restrict properties to year-round occupancy only, which would also lower the price. She's also investigating a similar state program that encourages smaller starter homes. With higher income limits and a year-round restriction driving down the price, some “attainable” homes could be realized, she said.

The community development department is also conducting a survey of town-owned parcels which Daniel said could be examined for housing opportunities. He asked that the committee receive a copy of that survey once it is completed.

Most of those possibilities involve long-term strategies, which doesn't help the immediate problem of people losing rentals or having to leave town because they can't afford housing.

“There isn't literally a day that doesn't go by that somebody doesn't call me, or reach out and come in and tell me my landlord is selling the property,” Cannon said.

“That's going to get worse before it gets better,” warned Moriarty.