Two Houses Up For Lease In Chatham's Unique Rental Escrow Program

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Housing and homelessness

One of the bungalows on the town-owned Marconi campus that is part of the MCI Rental/Housing Savings Program. Tenants are now being sought for one of the MCI houses as well as a new addition to the program on Crowell Road.  ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM – For nearly a decade, the housing authority, in partnership with the town, has administered a unique housing program that allows tenants to save half their monthly rent toward a downpayment on a house of their own. Two homes in the program are now available, and a lottery will be held next month to choose new tenants.

Under the housing authority's MCI Rental/Housing Savings Program, half of the monthly rent paid by tenants of four bungalows on Old Comers Road on the town-owned Marconi campus is escrowed and is available to be used for a downpayment on the purchase of the house at the end of the five-year lease. The funds are only available for purchase of a home; if the leaseholder does not qualify for a mortgage, the funds go back to the town's general fund.

Since it began in 2002, 13 families have gone through the program, and 11 have purchased homes. At first two of the MCI bungalows were rented with three-year leases; the other two on the property were later added and the lease period was extended to five years.

Now a fifth house as been added to the program, a two-bedroom ranch on Crowell Road purchased earlier this year with $362,000 in community preservation funds. A lottery for a tenant for that house and one of the MCI houses was recently announced with an application deadline of Nov. 22.

“We're very excited about that,” Tracy Cannon, the housing authority's administrative assistant who oversees the program, said of the Crowell Road house.

Under the program, participants must use the downpayment they save during the lease period to buy a home on the Cape, but not necessarily in Chatham. That caused some discussion at the May annual town meeting during the vote to acquire the Crowell Road house for the program, with some voters suggesting that by not requiring that tenants buy in Chatham, the program was contributing to the loss of young people.

The program in fact targets young families in order to take full advantage of the size of the MCI houses, Cannon said, but the definition of family can be somewhat flexible and can include extended family, which is sometimes necessary to make the finances work. By the end of the program, the money saved is enough for a downpayment on a $350,000 to $400,000 home, she said, which usually means buying in Harwich, Brewster, Orleans or another Cape town, but not often to buy in Chatham due to the high property values here.

The half of the monthly rent that does not go into escrow pays for administering the program and maintaining the houses, Cannon said. The program doesn't use any town funds. “So far it's all paid for itself,” she said.

Linda Kidd, a longtime employee at the Wayside Inn and Wild Goose Tavern, moved into a new house in Brewster last month after spending five years in one of the MCI houses. She said she initially inquired about the program after her pregnant daughter moved in with her and space became tight. Although a house wasn't available at the time, she kept checking in and was persistent. She's seen the bungalows and knew “it was perfect for us at the time.”

“I just kept going back,” Kidd said. “I wasn't going to let it slip through my fingers.” They moved in when her grandson was five months old. “It was perfect timing.”

For Kidd, the program worked perfectly. With two years left on her lease, she started looking for a home to buy, working “a lot harder” in the past year. She found a three-bedroom, two-bath home in Brewster that was perfect and worked with the downpayment she had saved.

“I can't say enough about the program,” she said.

All of the MCI houses have two bedrooms, one the first floor and a second floor room that could be a bedroom or office space, but, said Cannon, “the upstairs is very drafty.” The biggest drawback is that there's only one bathroom; but they also have porches that are “wonderful,” Kidd said, especially at night once the Old Comers Road traffic dies down.

Like the rest of the Marconi campus, the houses were built in 1914 by the Marconi company to house employees of the wireless radio station. The bungalows “have a lot of character,” Cannon noted, and most have undergone extensive renovations since the program began, with insulation, new boilers, windows and appliances.

Anne and Kevin Farris had saved for a downpayment on a house, but after unexpected medical bills following the birth of their son Rory, they had to start over. After their second child was born, they were living in South Chatham and looking for a larger house to rent when landlord Steve Smith told them about the MCI rental program. When they went to view the bungalow, Anne Farris was impressed.

“They looked like mansions,” she said. “It was really big, really spacious.” They qualified for the program and signed a three-year lease. The rent was only about $150 more than they had been paying previously. The house had plenty of room for the kids, and the housing authority even fenced in a back yard play area. Although the second floor was unheated, they used it as a spare bedroom and office.

“We thought it was fantastic,” Farris said.

But they ended up not staying for the duration of the lease. About two-and-a-half years in an affordable home in the town's housing opportunity program on Elkanah Street became available, and by then there was enough in their escrow to afford the downpayment, closing costs and conversion of the home from electric to gas heat.

They were lucky, said Farris, that the affordable house became available when it did. If the timing had been different, they probably would not have been able to afford a home in Chatham, where Kevin, a landscaper, grew up, and where she had been working for 30 years. She has since earned a nursing degree and works at Liberty Commons. They had been looking in Harwich at homes priced considerably higher.

“It enabled us to stay in town,” she said, crediting the housing authority with helping them both through the MCI program and in buying the house. “We definitely are rooted in Chatham.”

Cannon said there's a list of more than a dozen families interested in participating in the program. All are vetted to ensure they can make it through the program financially and that they meet income qualifications. Applicants must also show that they've been denied a mortgage. Those lucky enough to be chosen to lease a home will receive assistance in financial planning and, ultimately, positioning themselves to qualify for a mortgage.

To qualify for either of the two homes up for rent, applicants must meet household income limits ($51,250 for one person, $58,600 for two, $65,900 for three, $73,200 for four and $79,100 for five) and have assets of less than $75,000. Rent for the two-bedroom home is $1,300 plus utilities, while the three bedroom house is $1,400 plus utilities. While applicants can be from anywhere, most are current Chatham residents or people who work here, rather than from other communities. That “sort of happens organically” due to Chatham's location, Cannon said.

Applications are available at the town offices, the community center, the housing authority office at 240 Crowell Rd. or by calling 508-945-0478 or emailing Completed applications must be returned to the housing authority office no later than 2 p.m., Nov. 22.

Cannon suggested potential applicants call with questions or to review the application.