ORLEANS — Will the town offices be housing a housing coordinator next year?
With everyone talking about the need for housing, and the affordable housing committee and affordable housing trust board doing something about it, the issue has emerged as the town’s top priority. Last week, the two groups met with the selectmen and discussed what might have seemed impossible a year ago: a new hire, part- or full-time, devoted to delivering the housing options the town wants.
First, the trust presented a brief overview of its work since being set up in January, which board member Ward Ghory said has been guided by the town’s housing needs survey calling for 100 new units of affordable housing over the next decade. He cited two single-family projects, a Habitat for Humanity house on which ground will be broken in January with an eye to occupancy by the end of next year and a condo that will be rented at an affordable rate starting in April.
Regarding the condo rental, Ghory cited figures researched by Assessor Brad Hinote showing that only 279 of 5,739 parcels in Orleans are affordable to a family earning the current median income for the county of $91,300. Of these 279 properties, of which only 104 have recorded a sale in the last decade, 270 are condos. Majorities of the trust and board of selectmen agreed to purchase the condo as what Ghory described as a pilot project to see if that market can be tapped for affordable housing.
In its medium tier of projects, the trust is evaluating the potential of a building at 107 Main St. for conversion to nine housing units and has extended an agreement with its owner, Cape Abilities, to keep the property off the market until the end of the year. In the trust’s “large” tier is the extensive work that’s been done on the possibility of converting the Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank operations center on West Road to 45 housing units.
“That’s a total of 56 units we’re working on,” Ghory told the selectmen. In addition, the trust and committee have prepared operating guidelines for how properties are to be evaluated, making monthly status reports, promoting community collaboration, and looking for ways to increase the town’s capacity to fund major projects.
After Ghory spoke, Selectmen Chairman Mark Mathison cited some concerns about the trust’s recent request for his board’s support for a line of credit and the condo purchase for rental. “We’re kind of looking at the possibility of the town having a staff person that’s a housing coordinator or who works through (Director of Planning and Community Development George Meservey’s) office,” he said. “We want to initiate the discussion so we can ensure the people in Orleans that we’re working together to get the outcomes we all desire.”
Mathison invited Housing Assistance Corporation CEO Alisa Magnotta and Community Development Partnership CEO Jay Coburn to offer their insights. Magnotta, an Orleans resident, said she’d watched the selectmen’s meeting at which the board narrowly approved purchase of the condo unit for a rental. “It’s confusing to me who’s doing what and who’s in charge,” she said. “(HAC) has about 100 affordable units in the pipeline in three other towns. From a developer looking at the situation, it would be (wise) for us to figure out how to move forward in Orleans… It seems that having a point person that can go between the select board and town committees and the staff would be something reasonable and mission-critical. Other towns do it… It’s having that liaison who’s knitting the sweater between all the components.”
On the Lower Cape, Coburn said, “Provincetown has made great progress on housing production. For the last eight years, they’ve had a full-time staff person.” Other towns, such as Chatham and Harwich, share a housing coordinator through his agency. “We are not going to be able town by town to solve this problem,” he said. “The reality is Orleans is gonna have a sewer system. Orleans is also a place to be building housing using Smart Growth strategies of targeting housing in village centers. Let’s have Brewster, Harwich, and Chatham work together on development in East Harwich to make it a viable village center, and on opportunities here in downtown Orleans to make it more viable.”
The housing committee and housing trust have leaned heavily on the expertise of Meservey. Asked by Mathison for his “wish list” of duties for a part-time housing staffer, he said, “Ideally, I want somebody who knows more about housing that I ever thought of, the next level up… They might commission and evaluate feasibility studies, draft RFPs (requests for proposals), ID funding sources, maybe draft contracts for unit management… I can do a lot of it, but I had a full-time job before the housing trust.” Adding a staffer might move things faster, he said, but specialized consultants such as architects would still have to be tapped.
“Your guiding principles are a good start,” Selectman Kevin Galligan told the housing committee and housing trust. “We need to better define an implementation plan that leads to a staff person’s responsibilities. I’d rather see a goal of 200 (units), again across town lines. We can invest in Eastham and Brewster, and they should invest here… You guys are volunteers. I thank you for the 56 in the pipeline by taking phone calls. I think we’re moving from that level of a quick phone call to a little bit more maturity running this as a solid little business.”
A housing coordinator “is something both the committee and the trust are interested in pursuing,” said Mathison. “We members of the board have expressed some interest. It seems like a very prudent thing to do.” Next steps would involve discussions with Town Administrator John Kelly and Finance Director Cathy Doane regarding next year’s budget.
“Make sure you pay them enough so they can live here,” Coburn said. “We’ve got a condo,” trust chairman Alan McClennen replied.