Buried in Chatham Town Manager Jill Goldsmith's budget summary delivered to selectmen Monday was this nugget: the average value of a home in Chatham, as calculated by the town's assessing department, is now $938,145. In 2000, that figure stood at $249,975; that's a 275 percent increase in less than two decades, a rate of appreciation that would make any investor envious; during that same period, the S&P 500 had returned about 142 percent.
The average is, of course, skewed by the properties valued in the tens of millions of dollars range. But a quick look at the real estate listings in this newspaper and elsewhere confirm how rare it is to find a house below a half-million dollars, not just in Chatham, but in Harwich, Orleans, and many other Cape towns. While this isn't a new revelation, the fact that the average home value is approaching $1 million puts in stark relief many of the issues first raised a year ago when the Chatham 365 Task Force was established.
Housing costs remain the number one impediment to many people settling in the region, especially young people. Many of the Chatham 365 recommendations, such as offering childcare assistance, would provide some financial relief for families, and increased funding for the town's childcare voucher program is included in Goldsmith's proposed budget for fiscal 2021. However, more meaningful measures, like a residential tax exemption, must be taken more seriously by town officials. Selectmen have thus far been reluctant to go there; they seem to have a fear of the reaction of non-resident property owners, whose property taxes would rise slightly under such a scenario. While nonresidents pay more than half of the town's property taxes, the second home market is what's driving up the cost of real estate in town—how many of those $1 million-plus homes are occupied by year-round working people?—and selectmen should immediate commission an analysis to determine the specific impact of a residential exemption. It's been implemented in several Outer Cape towns, and it doesn't seem to have had a negative impact on second homeowners or the real estate market in those communities.
Despite the high real estate prices and the presence of sharks along the eastern shore, Chatham, Harwich and Orleans remain desirable places to own second homes and to live full-time, for those who can afford it. The factors contributing to that—our community infrastructure, businesses, recreational opportunities and the sheer beauty of the region—are not likely to change appreciably in the near future. Don't look for the average home value to drop anytime soon (big caveat here for catastrophic economic or political changes on the national or international scene). It's time to get creative and work more aggressively with the things we can influence to help even the playing field.