Home For The Holidays: Innovative Rental Escrow House Gets First Family

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Housing and homelessness

Celebrating the new rental escrow home Saturday are (from left) David Oppenheim; Selectmen Dean Nicastro, Cory Metters, Shareen Davis, Jeffrey Dykens and Peter Cocolis; Summer and young Aubrey Fulcher; John Stewart of the Chatham Housing Authority and Chatham Town Manager Jill Goldsmith. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

CHATHAM — For 24-year-old Summer Fulcher, her husband Jimmylee and their two young children, New Year’s Day will be more than just the start of a new year. It’s the beginning of a new life.

The four will be moving into a new home on Crowell Road, the newest addition to an innovative housing program in town.

“It’ll be perfect,” Summer said. Because it’s New Year’s Day, both she and her husband get the day off from work so they can move in. Otherwise, they’re each working six days a week to make ends meet for them and for their children, three-year-old Aubrey and eight-month-old Avery. Their sparkling, newly-renovated two-bedroom home isn’t any ordinary subsidized housing unit; it’s the newest addition to Chatham’s rental escrow program.

Started in 2002, the Chatham Housing Authority program has offered affordable rentals in four single-family houses, with half of each month’s rent being put in savings. At the end of the five-year lease, the family uses the proceeds from the escrow account for a down payment on a home of their own. The program is successful and has helped 16 families save up to buy houses, but it has been limited to the four houses acquired as part of the MCI-Marconi campus in Chathamport 17 years ago.

That was, until the town purchased the Crowell Road house using a unique partnership with local citizens and businesses. That consortium purchased the house for $355,000, $30,000 under the asking price, and then arranged for the building to be thoroughly repaired and cleaned. Led by Wayside Inn owner David Oppenheim, the consortium then offered the property to the town for $362,000, and it was purchased with Community Preservation Act funds.

Using the private consortium as an intermediary in the transaction is what allowed the town to take advantage of the opportunity when the house went on the market. Increasingly, properties put on the market are purchased even before the town’s affordable housing trust has a chance to act.

“Private enterprise can move quickly,” Oppenheim told the small crowd assembled for a ribbon-cutting at the house Saturday. It was a similar initiative, also led by Oppenheim, that helped the town acquire the former Eldredge Garage property in 2017. The Crowell Road rental escrow project required close coordination between the consortium and town staff, as well as an army of local businesses who performed the repairs and upgrades to the house at a discounted rate or for free.

“The generosity of people is amazing,” he said. There’s an awareness that, for Chatham to thrive as a community, “we need people to be able to live here,” Oppenheim said.

“This is a really special day for a family in Chatham,” Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said. With a tidy yard, new roof and sparkling floors, it’s clear it’s a great house, she said. “In a few short days, it’s going to become a home.” The program is a success, and should serve as a model for future projects, she said.

The rental escrow program isn’t perfect; critics say it doesn’t actually help young people buy permanent homes in Chatham, where market rate houses are priced well out of reach. Many of the graduates of the escrow program have gone on to buy homes of their own in other Cape towns where real estate prices are lower.

“Maybe that’s the next step,” Davis said. Finding ways to reserve housing units for local working families is a challenge, but it’s key to keeping the town sustainable as a community, officials say.

There were many inquiries about the Crowell Road home, Housing Authority Executive Director John Stewart, and three families met the income qualifications and other requirements to enter the lottery.

“It’s exciting to see the new families come in,” he said. But at the end of the lease, it’s even more exciting “writing those escrow checks,” he said.

Summer Fulcher and her family will be paying $1,300 a month in rent, and will have a tidy nest egg when their lease is up.

“It’s such a good head start,” she said. She and her husband have been living with Jimmylee’s mother in Dennis, and are grateful for her hospitality. But she’s glad she and her family will now be able to live in her hometown, at least for the next five years.

“I’m feeling so blessed,” she said.