Report Recommends Fundamental Changes To Town's Approach To Affordable Housing

By: Tim Wood

The town-owned former water department building on Old Harbor Road could be quickly repurposed as housing for a firefighter or teacher, a finance committee working group suggests in a recent report. TIM WOOD PHOTO


CHATHAM – What will the town's demographics look like in 25 years?

That's one of the key questions posed in a recent report on housing issued by the finance committee's community housing working group.


“Will we be a vibrant, thriving and hard-working community comprising a range of age, race, family size, income, occupational prospects and other demographics? Or shall we continue on the arc of exclusion and of periodically inhabited second homes? What is the Chatham of our affection and our memory?”

Housing has been high on town officials' priority lists as the cost of homes here skyrocket, driven by a robust second home market. More than 40 homes now on the market in Chatham are listed for $1 million or more, and the average assessed value of a property has topped $1 million. Initiatives like the Chatham 365 Task Force are working to find ways to make it more affordable for people to live in Chatham, especially young families.

In the 17-page report, the working group makes a number of suggestions for both short- and long-term affordable housing initiatives, some of which can be done relatively simply; others will require fundamental changes in the way the issue is approached.

The group is scheduled to discuss the report with the board of selectmen March 16.

One action that can be taken in short order, according to the report, is to repurpose the town-owned building at 127 Old Harbor Rd. The old house, once used as water department offices, is vacant, but has deed restrictions limiting its use. An article could be submitted to the upcoming annual town meeting to authorize the town to work to lift the deed restriction and lease the home to a local teacher, police officer or firefighter.

A longer-term and more complicated recommendation is to restructure the “architecture behind Chatham's attainable community housing efforts” by changing the board of selectmen-led affordable housing trust fund committee to a more stakeholder-based entity. This “less BOS-centric governance model” would work with the recently renamed community housing partnership and a new public/private partnership to seek out both capital “A” and small “a” affordable housing opportunities, according to the report.

Part of the reasoning behind this, said Finance Committee Chairman and working group member Stephen Daniel, is that the workload of the board of selectmen doesn't allow it the time necessary to take effective action on housing.

“They just don't have the opportunity to focus on this issue,” he said.

That's also one of the reasons the fincom decided to delve into the housing issue. During a conversation with fincom members Barbara Matteson and Andrew Young, Daniel said, he realized both had extensive knowledge and expertise in local housing issues. He also went through the Community Development Partnership's Cape Housing Institute, a program that aims to equip municipal official with the tools necessary to address affordable housing needs in their communities. He then recruited Tommy Doane and Jo Ann Sprague to join himself, Young and Matteson on the working group, which spent seven months looking into the issue.

People are focused on housing problems now more than ever, he said.

“This seemed like a big enough issue, enough people are talking about it now, and just recognizing the [board of selectmen] is not really going to have the bandwidth to spend seven months studying it,” Daniel said. “If we can be helpful in trying to nudge that along, we're happy to do it.”

The report breaks the approach to housing into five categories: structural, financial, regulatory, programmatic and education. The structural section focuses on migrating from the “old model” of a board of selectmen-led affordable housing trust—which includes all five members of the board and two residents—to a more community-based “new model,” over which the selectmen would still provide oversight and guidance. It will require a town meeting vote to make the change, Daniel said. He wasn't sure if that could be done in time for the close of this year's annual meeting warrant on March 23, but the group wanted to put it on the table for consideration.

The community housing trust fund committee would serve as the “executive arm” of the initiatives that come out of the community housing partnership, according to the report. The affordable housing trust fund now has a balance of $1.1 million; the fund has been used to buy land, most recently a parcel on George Ryder Road South which is being developed by Habitat for Humanity of Cape Cod. By contrast, according to the report, the Nantucket approved a $20 million bond for affordable rental housing last year.

Among the report's financial recommendations are suggestions that the town explore financial incentives to encourage 12-month rentals, similar to a residential tax exemption program in Provincetown which provides owners with a tax abatement if they rent to year-round tenants; increasing the community preservation fund contribution to housing; and setting up a funding mechanism for the community housing trust such as a budget line item, repurposing of a portion of the expired Cape Cod Land Bank surcharge, or allocating a portion of short-term rental proceeds.

Regulatory recommendations include looking at existing regulations governing year-round rental and supporting recommendations of the Chatham 365 Task Force. To help educate voters, the report suggests creating a video similar to one made by a Nantucket affordable housing group, and working with the real estate community to identify affordably priced homes before they are listed.

Programmatic possibilities include reviewing town-owned sites for possible housing development, adding affordable housing requirements to new municipal building projects, and considering acquiring homes through a second community housing trust to add to the inventory of affordable rentals.

Another suggestion, which Daniel said came from working group secretary Ann Ryan, is to create a “housing buddies” program in which elderly homeowners with an extra bedroom could partner with single working adults in need of housing. In exchange for reduced rent, individuals could provide a certain amount of services for the homeowner.

That is among the recommendations that the working group believes can be developed and implemented in “short order” to make a “potentially impactful change” in the quantity of available attainable community housing. Others include repurposing 127 Old Harbor Rd., and creating financial incentives for year-round rentals.

“Some of this stuff doesn't have to be complicated,” Daniel said.



Finance Committee Housing Report