Forum: Pandemic Shows Need For More Affordable Housing

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Housing and homelessness

Affordable housing.

“We are in a moment right now where it has never been more apparent that housing equals health care,” Andrea Aldana, director of Housing Advocacy for Community Development Partnership (CDP), said last week during an Orleans Citizens forum on affordable housing. “Our ability to control the pandemic is really closely tied to access to safe, decent and affordable housing that allows people to shelter in place and protect their families.”

She added that it is a myth that affordable housing increases COVID-19 cases. It is, in fact, crowding that leads to the virus’s spread, and sufficient affordable housing prevents crowding. “So we really should be using this moment to grab people’s attention and convert more people into supporters of housing creation.”

CDP was founded in 1992 to improve the lives of low-to-moderate income residents of the eight towns of the Lower Cape through economic development and the creation of affordable housing.

Aldana was one of four main speakers at the 81-minute virtual forum on Nov. 19. Joining her on the panel were Nancy Renn, chair of the town’s affordable housing committee; Alan McClennen, chair of the affordable housing trust fund board; and George Meservey, director of planning and community development.

The meeting opened with Renn offering an overview of the need for affordable housing that comes with deed restrictions reserving it for people under a certain median income as defined by HUD. Orleans has 323 units of such housing, with 277 units rented and 46 owned. These units are supported by various subsidies. Of this housing, almost three-quarters is for seniors or younger, disabled residents. In Orleans, 9.33 percent of year-round housing is defined by the state as affordable — which Renn called “admirable.” The town’s goal is to add 100 new units — 85 rentals, and 15 ownerships — in the next 10 years.

The need for affordable housing in Orleans and across the Cape generally is caused by rising prices, the increase in seasonal home owners, the leveling off of wages and a dwindling stock of mid-level housing, Renn said. In 2017, the committee authorized a study funded by a Community Preservation Act Grant to look at community housing with an eye to demographics, affordability, current housing status and anticipated needs and strategies for the future. The 148-page study is posted on the town’s website. In 2019 the affordable housing trust fund board was created and, through a warrant article at the annual town meeting, it was granted an annual appropriation of $275,000 to purchase affordable housing.

The trust board first met on Jan. 30, 2019 and has been working on four projects, McClennen said. The trust is empowered to buy, sell, lease and do anything related to real estate, including negotiating with private owners. Purchases are subject to the approval of the select board but not of voters at the annual town meeting.

The trust bought a two-bed, two-bath unit at 24 Old Colony Way for $235,000, which it will rent out. It also subsidized Habitat for Humanity, which built a house on a half-acre lot on Quonset Road. The total budget of the project was $550,000.

A third project is a conversion of the former Cape Cod Five operations center on West Road, next to Shaw’s. Forty to 60 dwelling units could be built on that site. Pennrose Development currently has a purchase and sales agreement for the site.

And a fourth project is 107 Main St. This property, inside the proposed Orleans Historic District, was purchased by the Masons in 1924. The group built the current building on the site in the 1960s. The goal is to “create 10 to 14 units in a historic character so when we do something on Main Street at a very visible site, people gonna say, ‘wow, they have added to the historic character of Main Street,’” McLellan said.

Meservey noted that the town is in the process of hiring a part-time housing coordinator. He said that in 2017 the town amended its zoning in two major ways. Because of the new sewers going through town, apartments can be as dense as 12 to 14 units on an acre, increased from six.

The other change came with accessory dwellings. A detached accessory dwelling of up to 1,800 square feet is permitted on a three-quarter acre lot. The town averages three to five accessory dwelling permits per year, and if the unit is rented, the year-round owners must occupy one of the two units on the lot. The town has the potential for over 1,000 such units.

“The housing shortage is more acute than it ever has been,” Merservey agreed. In Orleans, 625 households qualify for affordable housing; with 323 units of affordable housing available, the deficit is 302 units. One challenge in creating affordable housing on the Cape is that the cost of new housing, at $300 per square foot, is very high.

During a recent public media campaign, the CDP profiled people such as firefighters and teachers who need affordable housing options.

“We can’t afford to lose the people who can’t afford to live here,” is the tagline for the campaign, Aldana said.