CHATHAM – In a report earlier this year, a finance committee housing working group raised the question of what the town's future will look like given the wildly escalating cost of real estate.
“Will we be a vibrant, thriving and hard-working community comprising a range of age, race, family size, income, occupational prospects and other demographics?” the report read. “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?”
Similar questions were asked by the Chatham 365 Task Force and by numerous other town committees, officials and residents. There have been several high-profile discussions of the issue of housing — whether it's labeled “entry level,” “affordable,” “attainable” or “workforce.” A few weeks ago, selectmen agreed to reserve at least a portion of a 19-acre town-owned parcel off Middle Road for that purpose. But other than a few scattered units, not much has been done to stem the tide of rising housing prices and departing families.
Last week, the town's summer residents advisory committee stepped forward with a proposal for a “demonstration project” that members said could help realize the goal of helping young families stay in Chatham.
The project calls for the construction of 10 “modestly priced” homes on a one-acre parcel of, ideally, town-donated land. The two- to four-bedroom homes, ranging in size from 1,200 to 1,400 square feet, would be clustered together to allow back yards and common space.
“I think it works very well,” said SRAC member Phil Richardson. “It makes a nice little community.” If it works, more developments like it could be built, he said.
The most significant hurdle is zoning. The bylaw currently does not allow cluster development, and the proposal would exceed current density levels. It takes a two-thirds vote of town meeting to amend the zoning bylaw.
“To me that's the most important thing,” Richardson said of the zoning issue. “The rest are all mechanics.”
Chairman of Selectmen Shareen Davis said the proposal has merit and should be investigated further.
“I think we need to be looking at a lot of different programs like this” to address the town's housing needs, she said. Finance Committee Chairman Stephen Daniel agreed.
“In general, this is the sort of project that would fit in with the goals and recommendations of the finance committee working group,” he said in an email.
According to preliminary plans presented during last week's summer town meeting, the SRAC proposal involves building 10 single-family homes, with three different designs — traditional Cape, salt box and a hybrid of the two — around a central common. Each would have a small yard and garages would be located along a single roadway on one side of the development. The preliminary design was prepared by Jon Warden Architects of Healdsburg, Calif.
Richardson said a local bank is interested in providing financing, and a local builder could be found to do the construction. If the town donates the land, waives building and development fees and helps cover the cost of utilities, it's possible to keep the price of the homes to about $300,000. Ideally, the neighborhood would be located near a village center, such as West Chatham, so residents can walk to shops and other amenities, he said.
A coordinator, perhaps a volunteer from the private sector, would be needed to oversee a project, Richardson said. Davis said the town is in the process of hiring a housing coordinator who might be able to fill that role.
Richardson, whose full-time home is in Tiburon, Calif., has spoken with two selectmen about the idea and both seemed amendable. “I haven't met anybody who doesn't like the idea,” he said. He believes a project could be built within a year of identifying the land and changing the zoning.
Davis said she'd like to see the details of what a zoning change would involve before fully endorsing it. She's interested enough to want to see more details, and would also like to hear more about the idea from community housing groups, the planning board and residents.
In concept, the proposal looks a lot like recent condominium or hotel-to-residential conversions, Davis said, and may be the sort of development needed to yield reasonably affordable housing in numbers larger than one or two units.
“Land is really scarce in Chatham,” she said. “We don't really have a lot of opportunity to look at vast acres of land to develop something. So any opportunity for something, we should look at it.”
Daniel said he sees an understanding of and greater support for attainable housing developing in recent months.
“The 365 committee has made their perspective known, the economic development committee has weighed in, the finance committee has developed an action plan and is supportive of investment in this area, the selectmen seem to be broadly inclined towards the idea, community development is pursuing action with the support of the town manager, and the summer residents advisory committee has presented a prototype plan which encourages action,” he wrote. “There will always be naysayers, but I think people have come to understand that the future demographic profile of our town is truly at stake.”
A project of “greater scalability” than just one-acre and 10 units may be called for, he added.
“As a town, we’re really not going to get our arms around a solution to the challenge of attainable housing, and hence the future demographic profile of Chatham, unless we really commit to doing something on a greater scale,” he wrote.
“A lot of times these projects are proposed and people in the town say this will ruin the small-town character of this town,” Richardson said. “I'm involved in one in California where I hear that. But a project like this really improves, as far as I'm concerned, the small-town character because it creates a little community of its own.”